Moscow accused of aiding Azerbaijan over Armenians

July 18, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- With the smoldering war in the Caucasus heating up again, an international human rights delegation sharply criticized Soviet authorities yesterday for siding with the Azerbaijanis in their often violent efforts to expel Armenians.

Delegation members said Soviet army units typically surround villages while Azerbaijani security forces circle overhead in helicopters, informing villagers that if they do not leave the province, they will be shot.

Since the end of April, they said, more than 10,000 Armenians have been forcibly deported in this way from Azerbaijan.

Just how unwelcome Armenians are in Azerbaijan became vividly clear Tuesday when members of the delegation -- who come from the United States, Britain and Japan -- landed at Stepanakert airport in Azerbaijan on a flight from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Azerbaijani security troops, from a force known as the OMON, immediately arrested the five Armenians who were also on the flight and, waving their guns, detained the delegation at the airport until Soviet army troops finally intervened, Scott Horton, a New York lawyer and a member of the group, said yesterday.

"The OMON soldiers were acting totally out of control," he said. "I was frightened."

As far as Mr. Horton could determine, the only crime the arrested Armenians had committed was being Armenian.

He said the OMON soldiers appeared to have had little or no training. No one, he said, ranked lower than lieutenant.

Just two days earlier at the airport, when Azerbaijani officials had expected the group, an honor guard, girls with flowers, speeches and a reception greeted the foreign visitors, Mr. Horton said.

"What we saw two days later was the real thing," he said.

Since 1988 fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus region of the Soviet Union has uprooted more than a half-million people. Muslim Azeris have fled east to Azerbaijan; Christian Armenians have either fled or been deported west to Armenia.

Armed groups from both sides have attacked civilians. The fighters are equipped with everything from helicopters to surface-to-surface missiles.

Members of the delegation -- mostly lawyers, politicians and business executives -- are from a human rights group called the Sakharov Congress. Led by Caroline Cox, deputy speaker of the British House of Lords, they spent four days in the two republics, returning to Moscow yesterday. They interviewed refugees, prisoners, local officials, Soviet army officers and police.

They said they talked with 11 Armenian militia members who had been under arrest by Soviet troops for 47 days, deprived of water for eight days and beaten daily. They said witnesses told them of Soviet troops' standing by while Azerbaijani OMON troops went on rampages against Armenian villagers.

Mr. Horton said OMON soldiers have been recruited from among the 200,000 Azerbaijani refugees who have fled Armenia in the last three years.

"They make an active effort to recruit persons who have been displaced," he said. Recruits are sent to police villages, primarily in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, that have Armenian populations.

"These are people with the most animosity toward Armenians," Mr. Horton said. "That tops anything Himmler ever did," he said, referring to the high-ranking Nazi of World War II. Armenians and Russian liberals have accused the Soviet government of siding with Azerbaijan because the republic still has a Communist government, unlike Armenia.

The human rights group delivered a series of recommendations yesterday to Soviet authorities -- that deportations, hostage-taking, groundless arrests, beatings and torture of prisoners and harassment of civilians should cease; that people whose cars or livestock have been stolen or confiscated should be compensated; and that travelers be allowed to move freely.

But, recognizing the intractable positions of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, Mr. Horton added, "One thing we're trying very hard to do is get the United Nations involved."

Only an international force, he said, could establish peace in the region.

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