A Peacekeeping Priority

THE conflict in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has slipped toward disaster. Armenian guerrillas have forced troops from the surrounding republic of Azerbaijan to retreat in recent days. In the course of that action, the guerrillas killed an undetermined number of civilians in the Azeri village of Khojaly.

Meanwhile, soldiers from the Commonwealth of Independent States are being withdrawn. Commonwealth troops have taken casualties as they tried to separate the warring parties, and both Azeris and Armenians have accused them of taking sides in the conflict. But their removal could touch off a wider, no-holds-barred war between the two republics.

At issue is the status of Karabakh, which lies totally within the borders of Azerbaijan and is considered by Azeris an integral part - geographically and culturally - of their land.

Armenians, however, make up the overwhelming majority of the population of the enclave. The government in Yerevan has said it will never stand by and watch Karabakh's 150,000 Armenians be set upon by Azeris.

Can anything keep this blood feud from becoming a tremendously destructive war?

Mediation by Russia or other commonwealth states appears at an end. Boris Yeltsin made a stab at it earlier, but his attention is riveted to the problems of his own republic. The only hope is international mediation led by Western Europe or the United States.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the United Nations this week, indicating a commitment to UN aims. Territorial compromise involving Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan within Armenia ought to be possible.

The conflict warrants an immediate spot on the peacekeeping agenda. Increased killing will harden the positions not only of the combatants, but of countries like the US that should play a mediating role but which have large ethnic communities that could incline them toward one side.

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