Political Shake-Up Slows Azeri Army

THE battlefield success of Armenian forces in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh precipitated a political crisis in Azerbaijan that has stymied the Azeri war effort.

Leaders of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which ousted President Ayaz Mutalibov in a popular revolt last Friday, say Azeri forces at present are so disorganized they are incapable of mounting an offensive to reclaim lost territory. Many fighters abandoned their positions in the field and rushed back to Baku to participate in the ouster of Mr. Mutalibov who was restored to power last Thursday in a parliamentary coup two months after being forced to resign.

"It's technically and physically impossible for us to mount any kind of military operation," said Azad Isa-Zade, a Defense Ministry spokesman. "After the fall of [the border town of] Lachin, we've lost the ability to fight."

Azerbaijan's new political leadership is struggling to reorganize the country's defense capabilities. Before it can regroup militarily, however, the government must settle its internal disputes. Although the Popular Front has emerged as the dominant political force, former Communists still retain a great deal of influence. The Front is unlikely to gain a free hand to change things until after presidential elections scheduled for June 7. Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey is favored to win the vote.

Moderate front leader Isa Gambarov, elected Monday as interim parliament chairman, said the new Azeri leadership would seek a negotiated peace with Armenia. However preconditions for peace talks included a demand for the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from the Armenian populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and other Azeri territory - which Armenia is likely to refuse, foreign observers say.

"We will try to propose a peaceful solution but if they don't accept it there will be long and bloody fighting," Gambarov says. "The Azeri people will fight to the end."

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