AN intensification of the four-year conflict between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens to involve Turkey and possibly Iran, say Azeri officials and foreign observers here.
Azeri officials charge that Armenian forces, taking advantage of political turmoil in Azerbaijan, (Azeri political crisis, Page 3.) have launched attacks on Azeri territory, including on the Azeri enclave of Nakichevan, which also borders Turkey and Iran. Senior Armenian officials, however, deny this version of events, arguing instead that Azeri nationalists with support from Turkey are seeking to aggravate tensions.
Turkish officials cite a 1921 treaty with Soviet Russia making Turkey a guarantor of Nakichevan's sovereignty to justify military intervention. Such a Turkish response could have worldwide ramifications because of Turkey's membership in NATO, Western diplomats in Baku warn. Turkish President Suleiman Demirel yesterday ruled out sending Turkish troops to the enclave in the near future.
According to Oktoi Gasimov, an Azerbaijan Popular Front spokesman, an undetermined number of Armenian fighters crossed into Nakichevan Monday and were mounting an assault on Sadarak, a strategically important village just inside the Nakichevan border. Armenian artillery was also pounding other settlements all along Nakichevan's border with Armenia, Mr. Gasimov charged.
The Armenians' objective, Azeri officials say, is to occupy Sadarak and go on to capture the Araz bridge, which links Nakichevan with Turkey.
Ashot Manucharian, national security adviser to the Armenian president, denies Armenian aggression. He blames Azerbaijan Popular Front militia groups for opening fire on Armenian settlements on the Nakichevan border, drawing an Armenian response. "It was a real artillery duel," he recounted by telephone from Yerevan. "But there was no movement of troops on either side - neither the Armenians nor the Azeris violated the border." Sporadic gunfire exchanges continued yesterday, he said.
The border between Armenia and Nakichevan had been quiet in recent months, and there have been regular contacts between Armenian leaders and Nakichevan leader Geidar Aliyev. Mr. Manucharian blames "Turkish influence" for Aliyev's accusations of aggression against Armenia and his appeal for Turkish aid.
The Turkish response, issued in a Cabinet statement on Tuesday, has been unusually tough.
"That the newly established state of Armenia has based its existence on aggression and expansionism is its misfortune and a source of concern for the region," the Turkish government said. "We want to remind that Armenia is following an extremely mistaken path and it will be responsible for the consequences if it does not correct its aggressive attitude."
Turkey has strong ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, as well as a history of antagonism with Armenians after the 1915 Turkish killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, an event Turkish officials still deny.
Iran, which also borders Azerbaijan and Nakichevan, also issued a statement Tuesday denouncing the Armenian action, warning that it would not tolerate any change in borders. Iran has been attempting to mediate the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, including holding a meeting of leaders in Tehran on May 8 to try to enforce a failing cease-fire.
In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Manucharian said that he and Mr. Aliyev agreed to appeal to Iran to send observers to the border.
A well-informed foreign political observer in Baku said it was Turkey's desire to stay out of the conflict. But he added that the Turkish government could be forced to act because of domestic political pressure.
"Armenia is really pushing its luck by attacking Nakichevan," the political observer said. "Turkey has its own problems and doesn't want to get involved. But if the situation doesn't change quickly, public opinion in Turkey will demand action."
Armenian security official Manucharian says direct Turkish military intervention is unlikely. "But," he adds, "there are different views in Turkey, so new opportunities might be created and then taken advantage of."
The tensions in Nakichevan came as Armenian forces strengthened their control over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. Armenian guerrillas and Azeri forces have been fighting for four years for control over the territory, with an estimated 2,000 people killed in the fighting.
Since the beginning of May, Armenian forces have achieved a series of victories that have left them in total control of Karabakh. On Monday, Armenian irregular forces captured Lachin, a village lying in a 6 mile corridor that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper.
Lachin's capture would allow Armenia to open an overland supply route to Karabakh. In the past an Azeri block-ade left Karabakh with only a fragile supply line by helicopter and small aircraft.
"There was no Armenian involvement in Lachin," says Manuchar-ian, though he allows that Kara-bakh "self-defense forces" attempted to breach the blockade.
He says Azeri forces fled the town along with the population, leaving it unoccupied. Anyway, he argues that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which has tried to mediate the conflict, supported the need to create a "humanitarian corridor into Karabakh" to relieve the besieged population there.