RELIEF agency workers in Azerbaijan say a worsening refugee crisis caused by the Aug. 23 fall of the southern city of Fizuli to Armenian forces could force regional powers to enter the five-year war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since Aug. 17, tens of thousands of Azeris have fled the Armenian attack on Fizuli, south of the enclave. The Armenian advance halted less than 10 miles from the Iranian border, and the last road from the area to remain open was jammed with trucks carrying Azeri families and their belongings.
"The situation is becoming absolutely unbearable for hundreds of thousands of people," says Andre Picot, chief of the International Committee for the Red Cross in Baku. "It could really quickly degenerate. Iran could be one more country to get involved in this conflict, and I'm afraid if that happens, Turkey and Russia might not remain silent."
War erupted in the Caucasus region in 1988 as ethnic Armenians in the enclave sought autonomy from Azerbaijan. Soviet authorities put the area under Azerbaijan control in the 1920s.
Concerns that the fighting will escalate have been raised by the flood of refugees leaving the battle front. Their only escape route is the road from Fizuli to the Azeri capital Baku, which runs parallel to the Iranian border.
Since the offensive began, the narrow road has been jammed with trucks and carts piled high with livestock and furniture. In fields along the roadside, just 20 miles from the fighting, thousands of refugees have set up makeshift homes.
Khanmurad Muradov, who left Fizuli when the Armenians began shelling the city, said he hoped one day to return home, but for now he has nowhere to go. "There is no one to help us," he says at the roadside camp. "The government gives us nothing."
At an Army checkpoint, Azeri soldiers carried out random searches of trucks and cars. Many appeared exhausted and dispirited after the latest defeats, and blamed Russian-supplied weaponry for Armenia's military superiority.
Lt. Nahid Nagiev, who fought outside Fizuli, said that the territory lost would never be regained. "This war has been conducted on our land," he said. "It is our land they are taking ... and they have great strength."
If the Armenians continue to push south toward the Iranian border, they will have seized nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan. Representatives for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Baku say that if that were to occur, 100,000 Azeris would be trapped behind Armenian lines and would have no choice but to seek asylum in Iran.
Iran has not yet formally indicated whether it will accept any of the Azeri refugees, but on a recent visit to Baku, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati expressed support for Azerbaijan in the conflict.
Iranian diplomats in Baku, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the government in Tehran was "heavily pressuring" Armenia to withdraw its forces from the area and doing everything possible to prevent the crisis from spilling over the Iranian border. "Iran has offered hospitality to refugees before, and will do so again, but God forbid it should happen," says an Iranian Embassy spokesman.
The UN Security Council has also demanded an immediate Armenian withdrawal, but the Armenian government denies that it is in control of the latest offensive, saying the troops responsible are led by commanders from Nagorno-Karabakh, not Armenia itself.
Mikhail Pogosian, a Karabakh officer who led the Aug. 17 attack on the town of Jebrail near Fizuli, said he had no wish to bring about a confrontation with Iran. "We don't want to create a political dispute between Nagorno-Karabakh and Iran," he said, shortly after Armenian forces withdrew to strategic heights surrounding the city.
The latest Armenian advance has brought renewed public pressure on the government of Azerbaijan to try to reverse the country's military fortunes. Acting President Geidar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's former Communist Party chief, assumed power June 20 after rebel troops marched on Baku to protest President Abulfaz Elchibey's handling of the war.
Opposition leaders say Mr. Aliyev must act quickly if he is to remain in power. "He has three or four months at the most," said Arif Yunusov of Azerbaijan's Popular Front. "If in that time he cannot end the war in Karabakh, or at least if no great victories are won, ... then I doubt very much whether he'll have a future."
But Western diplomats in Baku are more sanguine about Aliyev's grip on power, which will be tested in an Aug. 29 referendum. They say the real victim of the latest Azeri defeats could be the country's prime minister, Army Comdr. Suret Guseinov.
His relations with Aliyev have been strained since he demanded the presidency two months ago, and some observers say Aliyev is merely waiting for the right moment to move against him.