THE phone rings and Geidar Aliyev, the parliamentary leader of this Azeri enclave, raises his hand to hush reporters. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan is on the other end of the line, and the two leaders must discuss ways to end clashes between Azeri and Armenian forces near the village of Sadarak in northern Nakichevan, he explains.
Mr. Aliyev, a Brezhnev-era member of the Communist Party Politburo who now claims he is a democrat, listens intently and then shouts, "Your statement sounds fine, but I ask you to give the order to cease fire."
Aliyev was shouting not out of anger but because the phone line was bad. Shortly thereafter, he told Mr. Ter-Petrosyan that he would have to try to call him back on a clearer line. The conversation summarized the nature of the Armenian-Azeri conflict. Both sides are having trouble understanding each other, and they also appear to be having communications problems within their own camps.
Over the last four years thousands of Armenians and Azeris have been killed in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. In recent weeks Armenian forces have gained control of Karabakh and opened an overland supply route through a strip of Azeri territory that separates Karabakh from Armenian proper.
Now tensions have spread to the border with Nakichevan, an Azeri-ruled enclave surrounded on three sides by Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Fighting has raged for four days along the Nakichevan-Armenian border, killing at least 20 Azeri fighters, officials in Nakichevan say.
The fighting has raised the threat of internationalizing the conflict as both neighboring Iran and Turkey have hinted they might intervene in support of their Muslim Azeri brothers. Russian news services have carried unconfirmed reports that Turkish troops have been put on alert.
Aliyev said his priority was securing a cease-fire. But he added that if the fighting continued he would have to seek assistance from Turkey, which under a 1921 treaty signed with Soviet Russia is a guarantor of Nakichevan's security. "If Turkey gets involved, anything is possible. I am warning the world community that a real explosion could take place."
Russia, which also has a treaty status as a guarantor of security for the area, has expressed its own interest in the events. Yesterday Russian President Boris Yeltsin's top aide, Gennady Burbulis, accompanied by newly named Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev, flew to Yerevan for talks with the Armenian leadership.
Troops of the former Soviet Army, now part of the forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, remain along the border with Turkey and Iran. Col. Viktor Zhukov, local commander of the troops, warned that his forces would resist any Turkish attempt to cross the border.
Aliyev reestablished telephone contacts with the Armenian leader later Wednesday. During the renewed conversation he expressed approval of the Armenian leader's suggestion to establish a neutral security zone. But he said a cease-fire had to be in place before a protocol could be signed. According to Aliyev, Ter-Petrosyan gave assurances that an order would be given.
Yet Aliyev expresses doubts that the Armenian president could carry out his promise. "I want to believe him, but he promised before he'd give the order and it didn't happen," Aliyev said, referring to a phone conversation on Monday. He echoes the belief of many here that the Armenian president may not be able to control the Armenian militia. "I can't be sure the units are under his control, but they ought to be because he is the president."
Armenian officials suggest that the Azeri militia is following the directive of the nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front rather than Aliyev, with whom they have maintained relatively good ties in recent months.
"We don't take our orders from Aliyev, and we don't take our orders from the Popular Front," says Sadarak militia leader Tofik Akberov. "We take our orders from the people."
The fighting, concentrated near Sadarak, appeared to be dying down yesterday, according to Colonel Zhukov, who expressed hope the trend would hold. But leaders at the local office of the Popular Front, which ousted Azeri President Ayaz Mutalibov last Friday, assert that the lull in the fighting is only temporary.
"The Armenians have a thousand troops in the area and are probably massing their forces for an attack," said Farzuk Said-Beli, the Popular Front's deputy ideological chief in Nakichevan.
In Sadarak on Wednesday, evening tracers and rockets lit up the night as Azeri and Armenian forces battled for control of hills that overlook the village of 16,000, located in a lush grape-growing region in the shadow of Mt. Ararat. There was a constant crackle of machine-gun fire and an occasional thud from the concussion of an artillery round.
"They are hitting us with all kinds of weapons, including tanks and armored personnel carriers," said militia leader Akberov. "The fighting has been tough and intensive."
Zhukov of the border guard said there was no evidence that the Armenians were employing armor against the Azeris. Akberov, meanwhile, claimed Azeri forces had no heavy weapons but a large-millimeter cannon was seen on the road to Sadarak, about a mile from the battlefield.
Most residents have fled Sadarak, some setting up a small tent camp about 5 miles away.
Azeris in Sadarak claim the Armenians started the fighting in a surprise attack. They have differing opinions has to why the fighting started. Some claimed to have conversed with Armenian fighters by radio, who said that Nakichevan belonged to Armenia and they would fight until they got it back. Others said the Armenians wanted to capture Sadarak and move on to take the Araz bridge, about 6 miles away, cutting the only link between Nakichevan and Turkey.
Back in Nakichevan the signs of a military buildup are evident. Tupolev-154 jets from Baku, flying over Iranian territory, arrive in increasing numbers at the tiny local airport. As each plane arrives, flatbed trucks rush out to the tarmac to meet it, leaving with crates of arms and ammunition.