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COLUMN ONE : The Riddle of Monte Melkonian : Family and friends wonder how a Visalia Cub Scout with no interest in his roots ended up as a terrorist and Armenian war martyr.

October 09, 1993|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melkonian began meeting with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a Marxist group founded four years earlier by an Iraqi-Armenian who fought for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Fearing retribution from his previous associates, Melkonian slept with a machine gun and grenades. One morning, a friend of a friend spirited the Melkonian brothers and their cousin out of the Armenian quarter to a dank safehouse in West Beirut.

It was the Marxists' headquarters. Melkonian's mentor, Yenikomeshian, had already enlisted with the group.

"Monte had some real doubts" about the left-wing group, his brother said. "But he wanted so badly to help Armenians and he felt that something had to be done quickly."

Melkonian signed on with the group, which espoused violence to publicize the genocide and to punish Turkey for holding the Armenian homeland. His brother, believing that a Palestinian homeland was the key to stability in the region, traveled south to briefly become a PLO guerrilla. Occhinero returned home to Fresno.

Melkonian remained underground in Beirut for three years, rising to second in command of the violent Marxist group. The group seemed to be everywhere, taking responsibility for more than 40 bombings and assassinations of Turkish diplomats worldwide, including a 1982 suicide mission at the Ankara airport in Turkey that killed 10 people and wounded 72.

The FBI, which investigated bombings in Los Angeles by members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, suspected that Melkonian was keeping his family informed of his role and movements. But his father said the family was kept in the dark. In fact, he said, if not for a mysterious phone call they might never have discovered that their son had been jailed in France for carrying a forged Greek passport.

"It was strange," the father said. "This voice says: 'Dimitriu Georgiu has been released from prison.' 'I said: 'Who in the hell is Dimitriu Georgiu?'

"He says: 'He's your son.' I said: 'Well I didn't know he was in prison.' "

Melkonian's parents traveled to Beirut in 1982, hoping to talk some sense into their son. They were whisked to the top floor of a PLO office building where the Armenian Marxist leaders were holed up. The parents stayed one week, long enough to surmise that Melkonian was in too deep. Indeed, they were told that Arafat had twice intervened to rescue Melkonian from Libyans who thought he was a spy.

"I kept asking him: 'Why are you doing this crazy stuff?' and he just smiled," Charles Melkonian recalled. "He said: 'Dad, this is a 100-year movement. If Armenians of your generation had started this 50 years ago, we'd be 50 years ahead.' I said: 'We were trying to eat for Christ's sakes! What movement?"'

In his writings, Melkonian began to argue for a more political organization that limited its violence to Turkish diplomats. The group's Iraqi-Armenian founder, Hagop Hagopian, advocated suicide missions that also took innocent lives as a way to get the most publicity.

The final break came when two Melkonian supporters killed two Hagopian supporters. Hagopian flew to Syria and kidnaped Melkonian's two closest comrades, then held them for 30 days, filming their torture and execution. Melkonian's wife said she saw the film.

Melkonian went underground in France and founded a less violent offshoot of the Armenian Marxist group. He seemed to be making a transition to political activist in late 1985, when French police searching his apartment found two explosive devices and a map showing the travel route of a Turkish diplomat.

Convicted of criminal conspiracy, Melkonian spent four years in a French prison--years in which his mother was finally able to sleep through the night. "As funny as it sounds," she said, "at least I knew where he was."

In a series of prison essays, Melkonian cited failings of the Armenian Secret Army and called on Armenian revolutionaries to join Kurdish and Turkish rebels to establish a guerrilla force in eastern Turkey.

"Pens are pens and guns are guns," he wrote. "Right now we have a greater need for guns than pens."

It might take decades, he insisted, but they would succeed in wresting Armenian land from Turkey and joining them to Soviet Armenia.

The Soviet Union's collapse and the emergence of an independent Armenia changed all that. But it also presented Melkonian with an opportunity after his release from prison in 1990. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians were trying to break free from Azerbaijan on land they said had belonged to Armenia for thousands of years.

Karabakh Armenians credited the American with turning their ragtag irregulars into a fighting force. He forbade the use of alcohol and drugs and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, according to accounts, and exacted a tax on Armenian Mafias in the form of guns and bullets. In an 11-day push, they say, his forces captured 1,500 square kilometers and dislodged Azeri troops from within missile range of Armenia.

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