Fighting intensifies in disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh death toll rises

February 02, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Village-to-village fighting and heavy shelling of the capital racked the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday in a radical new escalation of warfare that has already cost more than 1,000 lives in the Caucasus Mountains enclave.

Armenian and Azerbaijani militants grappled for control of several villages seen as key tactical positions on Nagorno-Karabakh's border with Azerbaijan, and scores of rockets rained down on the capital of Stepanakert, according to reports from the region.

Dozens of people have been reported killed since Friday -- more than 100, according to the Azerbaijani news agency Assa-Irada -- and an estimated 60 people died in similar fighting last weekend.

In an apparent bid to bring back the former Soviet troops that were withdrawn from the region in December, leaving a vacuum that opened the way for the new clashes, the chairman of Nagorno-Karabakh's Parliament flew to Moscow yesterday to appeal to the Russian leadership and the army.

"The conflict has entered a qualitatively new stage in the military sense," said Armen Baibursyan, an Armenian parliamentary official, from Armenia's capital of Yerevan.

Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians who want to secede, has proved the most intractable and violent of the old Soviet Union's ethnic conflicts during nearly four years of fighting.

Armenian officials have appealed repeatedly in recent days for international peacekeeping troops to stop the bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Even the Russian Foreign Ministry, openly disturbed by the prospect of a full-fledged war near Russia's southern border, has said that it would welcome international peace initiatives, and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has endorsed the idea of bringing in U.N. troops.

Mr. Baibursyan said that Azerbaijani troops were attacking on Friday and yesterday in groups of up to 400 soldiers -- far more than before -- backed by armored personnel carriers and even some tanks.

They have also begun to use artillery more sophisticated than the Alazan rocket, used in civilian life to break up hail clouds, that has been a staple of the conflict, Mr. Baibursyan said.

The Azerbaijani attacks on villages in Nagorno-Karabakh's Askeran region were apparently aimed at opening a corridor from which they could launch an assault on Stepanakert, the Interfax news agency reported. Azerbaijani reports said that Armenians were bombarding Shusha, an Azerbaijani stronghold near Stepanakert, and the city of Agdam, which lies just over the border in Azerbaijan proper.

The battles appeared to have been spurred in part by Azerbaijani anger over a helicopter crash earlier in the week that killed about 40 of their compatriots. Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of shooting down the helicopter down with a heat-seeking missile; Armenia denies the accusation.

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