MOSCOW -- Azerbaijani militias, reportedly backed by attack aircraft and scores of tanks, pushed into the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday in a strong offensive that prompted Armenia to threaten direct intervention in the 4-year-old war.
The Azerbaijanis, who had lost their last foothold in Nagorno-Karabakh last month, took at least five villages in tough fighting believed to have left dozens dead, reports from the region said. But Azerbaijani officials played down the offensive, saying that the captured villages had been taken and retaken several times before, and that it was hard to tell anymore who were attackers and who defenders.
Azerbaijan also accused Armenia of attacking first by moving on the Azerbaijani city of Agdam and surrounding villages, thus triggering this latest episode in the dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over control of Nagorno-Karabakh -- an enclave of Azerbaijan populated mostly by Armenians.
Yesterday's fighting appeared to be one of the conflict's bigger clashes. It also brought signs of new policies from both sides.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry warned that growing Azerbaijani stockpiles of weapons, taken from former Soviet arsenals, "will be used to annihilate the people of Nagorno-Karabakh." Armenia could "have no choice but to take decisive action to provide the necessary support and assistance to defend the rights and security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh," it said.
The statement appeared to signal a willingness to shift from the Armenian government policy of maintaining that Armenia, as a country, was not involved in the war.
"There are Armenians living in Karabakh, and the republic will take measures to defend them," Garnik Badalyan, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, told the Russian Information Agency.
If Armenia goes ahead with its threat and intervenes directly, it could be crossing the last threshold separating it from full-fledged war with Azerbaijan, its neighbor in the Caucasus Mountains in the south of the former Soviet Union.
On the Azerbaijani side, the offensive coincided with the announcement of official election results naming Abulfez Elchibey the new president of Azerbaijan. That move raised the question of whether Mr. Elchibey, a Popular Front leader, was launching an aggressive new policy.
Militarily, the Azerbaijani offensive marked the first time that several groups of fighters had been coordinated under joint command, said Leila Yunusova, a spokeswoman for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry.
"This is the first time our military leadership managed to bring together some seven large armed groups that hitherto acted mostly independently, like guerrillas, without any coordination whatsoever," she said. "That may partially explain our heavy defeats [earlier] this year."
The main battles were reported along Nagorno-Karabakh's eastern border with Azerbaijan proper. Sources in the region told the Interfax news agency that thousands of Azerbaijani soldiers were taking part in the offensive, backed by at least 100 armored vehicles and tanks, as well as planes and helicopters.