OFFICIALS in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are pushing peace proposals to head off the growing possibility of all-out war between the two Transcaucasian states over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The pleas for peace followed reports over the weekend that 2,000 Azeri troops, backed by heavy tanks and rocket launchers, opened a large-scale counteroffensive to drive Armenian militias from newly captured territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. The territory is largely inhabited by Christian Armenians, but has been administered by mostly Muslim Azerbaijan since 1923.
Armenian forces apparently stopped the Azeri drive on the town of Askeran, but 200 Armenians were killed in the fighting, said the Interfax news agency, citing Armenian sources.
Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has called on the United Nations to intervene before the conflict becomes uncontrollable.
Azeri officials have proposed holding a regional peace conference involving the former Soviet republics of Russia and Georgia, as well as Muslim neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Recent peace initiatives, such as an Iranian cease-fire effort last month, have made little progress in ending the four-year-old struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of the heaviest fighting has occurred during the last two weeks, with the death toll during that time climbing as high as 1,000, by some estimates.
Armenia appears to have gained the upper hand during the latest fighting, pushing Azeri forces out of all but a few towns in Nagorno-Karabakh. The battlefield setbacks brought down Azeri President Ayaz Mutalibov, who announced his resignation Friday after two days of fierce protests in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital.
Nationalists in Azerbaijan's Popular Front had repeatedly criticized Mr. Mutalibov for not doing enough to help Azeri forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. His resignation will likely increase the political influence of the Popular Front, which takes a hard-line approach toward accommodation with Armenia. The Azeri parliament is expected to debate electing a new president Tuesday or Wednesday, Interfax said. Parliament chairman Yakub Mamedov is Azerbaijan's interim leader.
The rise of the Popular Front, combined with the withdrawal of former Soviet Army troops from the region, has many political experts predicting increased military activity in Nagorno-Karabakh. Anticipating increased attacks by Azeri forces, Armenian defense officials have announced the mobilization of young men to form "self-defense battalions" to defend against possible attack on Armenia, the Itar-Tass news agency said.