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Azerbaijan Says Armenians Have Seized a Strategic Town

September 05, 1993|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Azerbaijan said Armenian forces violating a truce seized a strategic town near the Iranian border Saturday in an overnight assault that cut off the entire southwest of the country and isolated thousands of refugees.

Armenian spokesmen denied any such action. They accused the Azerbaijanis of spreading lies to try to drag Iran and Turkey, neighboring countries that are also predominantly Muslim, into the conflict on their side.

"Our troops observe the cease-fire," Manvel Sarkisyan, an official of the disputed, mostly Armenian, Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan, said by telephone from Yerevan, Armenia's capital. "I think this is another instance of the Azeri propaganda campaign."

The Azerbaijanis said that Goradiz, about a mile and a half from the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, fell after massive artillery shelling began at midnight and tanks rumbled in.

"Now the village is in the hands of the Armenians, with about 5,000 to 7,000 civilians who couldn't manage to flee," Defense Ministry spokesman Selim Balayev said in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital. "We don't have the exact casualty toll, but at this stage it can be said that dozens of our soldiers were killed or injured."

A military spokesman in Baku told reporters that with the capture of Goradiz, Armenian forces had cut off the escape route of up to 230,000 refugees.

International aid agencies could not confirm the capture of Goradiz, but they said that if those reports are correct, the battle could drive thousands of refugees into Iran.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been fighting for five years in a conflict that began over ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh. A 10-day cease-fire, the latest in a series that has done little to end the bloodshed and violence, was supposed to go into effect this month.

"This is a real tragedy. We observed the truce, and they attacked us in the middle of the night," Balayev charged.

This year, Armenian fighters drove the Azerbaijanis out of Nagorno-Karabakh and have gone on the offensive in Azerbaijan proper, a turn of events that has greatly worried powerful neighbors, including Russia, Turkey and Iran. On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the appearance of heavily armed Armenian fighters near the Iranian frontier had given the conflict between the two former Soviet republics a new "dangerous edge" that could lead to an "international collision."

Turkey and Iran have put their border troops on alert and strongly warned Armenia, which has a military alliance with Russia, to withdraw from Azerbaijani territory.

Groups of Iranian soldiers may already have entered Azerbaijan; diplomats report that there is an Iranian-Azerbaijani agreement on a 12-mile-deep security zone. Turkish newspapers published photographs Saturday of what they said were Iranian forces cooperating with Azerbaijani troops inside Azerbaijan.

Turkey has in the past been a suspicious rival of Iran for influence in Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union like Azerbaijan. But it appears to have dropped its objections in the higher interest of stopping the Armenian advances. Turkish Foreign Ministry officials now speak of "coordination" with Tehran.

Special correspondent Hugh Pope, in Istanbul, contributed to this article.

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