THE battles between Armenians and Azeris for control of the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to widen into a full-scale war with the withdrawal of the last units of peacekeeping forces of the former Soviet Army.
Two large convoys of Army troops were dispatched to Nagorno-Karabakh Sunday to extricate the last motorized infantry division of the Commonwealth of Independent States from the region, according to Reuters news agency.
Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the commonwealth forces' commander-in-chief, ordered the pullout last week after several soldiers were killed and many others injured by Azeri rocket attacks on their base. Both the neighboring Transcaucasian states of Turkic, mainly Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia are members of the commonwealth.
The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as that of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh, which has declared independence from Azerbaijan, oppose the pullout.
Each side accuses the Army of siding with the other in the recent fighting.
"We have the ability to fight the Armenians ourselves, but we are unable to fight the entire Army of the [commonwealth]," said Azeri presidential adviser Vafa Goulizade.
At the same time the Azeri official protested the withdrawal plans. "It's a provocation for full-scale war," he said. "This war, any war, threatens the stability of the entire commonwealth."
The Azeris, whose troops have been pounding Stepanakert with daily rocket and artillery barrages for weeks, have recently been forced onto the defensive by Armenian irregular forces.
Last week Armenians captured the key town of Khojaly, a base for attacks on Stepanakert and the location of the only airport in the region. On Sunday Armenian forces stepped up their attack on Shusha, a hilltop town which is the last major Azeri stronghold in Karabakh and the main site of Azeri rocket batteries.
The Armenian government in Yerevan and the Karabakh authorities have repeatedly called for the introduction of peacekeeping forces from the commonwealth or international bodies such as the United Nations. Last week Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan floated yet another peace plan calling for a cease-fire, accompanied by international observers and followed by direct negotiations between Azerbaijan and the Karabakh authorities.
But so far such mediation efforts have made no progress toward halting the fighting.
Now the withdrawal of commonwealth troops, including from the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, may be the prelude to war beyond the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has already moved to form its own army, and while Armenia has not followed suit, significant numbers of Armenian official and unofficial militias have been organized.
The Armenian government has made clear that it will not stand by if Azerbaijan seems poised to overrun Karabakh and oust its approximately 150,000 Armenian population. That scene evokes painful memories of the 1915 depopulation of Armenian-populated Turkey in which about 2 million Armenians died.
"We cannot tolerate that one more segment of the Armenian population be deported, massacred, or subjected to genocide," Gerard Libaridian, an adviser to the Armenian president, told reporters in Moscow last week. "Therefore any further escalation of the conflict," he warned, "will at some point become unacceptable to the government of Armenia."