MOSCOW -- Azerbaijan accused Armenia yesterday of launching a surprise invasion of its territory with the aid of units of the former Soviet army, only two days after a call for an immediate cease-fire, but officials in Armenia and Moscow flatly denied the accusation.
President Ayaz Mutalibov and other Azerbaijani leaders, meeting in emergency session in Baku, said the "direct aggression" had pushed relations between the Transcaucasian neighbors to their most dangerous point in two years.
The accusation spotlighted the uncertain future of what had been the world's largest standing military force -- the 3.7 million-member Soviet army -- as it speeds toward what the commander believes will be its inevitable breakup into separate national forces.
Expressing alarm over events in the Caucasus, Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, chief of strategic forces in the Commonwealth of Independent States, said his troops must not permit themselves to be enticed into the conflict, or a "large-scale war" will occur.
"That means blood, mass casualties and destruction," Marshal Shaposhnikov told the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. "This is a direct threat to the security of not only the neighboring states, but of the whole world."
He called on Armenia and Azerbaijan not to create their own armies until the territorial dispute that has set them at each other's throat is solved.
The Azerbaijani reports, which were sketchy and conflicted to some degree, said an unspecified number of fighters from a nationalist militia called the Armenian National Army punched over the two republics' common border at 3 a.m. in a "storm of fire."
Allegedly riding tanks and other armored vehicles and accompanied by units of the former Soviet 4th and 7th armies, the Armenian forces were "destroying villages and annihilating the peaceful population of the border zones," Azerbaijan's official news service said.
But the unofficial Assa-Irada press agency reported that only two villagers were killed and two wounded.
Assa-Irada said the invading force's goal was to sweep through Kubatly and Jebrail provinces and block the only road connecting Lachin province and Shusha, the major Azerbaijani population center of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with the rest of Azerbaijan.
Since February 1988, the two republics have been locked in a violent feud over the status of the territory, which although predominantly Armenian and therefore Christian in population, was attached to mostly Muslim Azerbaijan by Kremlin fiat at the dawn of Soviet rule.
With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh now claims to be independent. But Azerbaijan has revoked the status it held as an autonomous region and now considers it a parcel of Azerbaijan territory with no special rights.
In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, the Armenian Defense Ministry called the Azerbaijani accusations of an invasion sheer "disinformation."