Soviet soldiers have blocked dozens of Azerbaijani attempts to massacre Armenians in their homes in the continuing communal violence in the southern Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a senior military commander there said Saturday.
Seven people, including three soldiers, have officially been reported killed in the past week in the ethnic conflicts in Azerbaijan. But other reports, also from official sources, put the number of deaths at 10 to 12 in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia in that period.
Human rights activists continue to insist, however, that the toll is far greater--as high as 130 dead in the strife-torn Azerbaijani city of Kirovabad alone--and, with warnings of possible genocide, they have appealed for swift action by the government to halt Azerbaijani attacks on Armenians.
Maj. Gen. V. Omelchenko, the military commander at Kirovabad, told the armed forces newspaper Red Star that his troops had suppressed repeated Azerbaijani attempts to kill local Armenians in what he described as “pogroms,” a reference to the organized massacres of Jews in Czarist Russia.
In nightly raids, groups of Azerbaijani youths have tried repeatedly to burn the neighborhoods of Armenians, who make up a quarter of the city’s population of 200,000, Omelchenko said, and “more than 70 attempts to organize pogroms” against the Armenian neighborhoods have been reported by his officers.
More than 150 people have been detained and a number of firearms seized by the troops, who have been given special powers of detention and search. A night curfew has also been imposed.
The three soldiers who were killed--a lieutenant and two privates--were fatally wounded when a hand grenade was thrown at them amid a barrage of stones while they were guarding the Kirovabad municipal offices Tuesday evening, Red Star reported.
The troops had been summoned late Tuesday afternoon by local officials when demonstrations over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan whose Armenian majority wants it to be transferred to Armenia, turned into violent anti-government protests.
Although the central government has said that the region will remain part of Azerbaijan, which regards it as part of the Azerbaijani national heritage, rumors had spread that it would be transferred this week.
Despite intensified patrolling by his troops, Omelchenko said that local authorities “still do not have total control” of Kirovabad, the focus of much of the recent unrest in Azerbaijan, and added that the local police continue to take no action to halt the violence there.
With assistance from the Azerbaijani Communist Party headquarters in the capital of Baku, the soldiers at Kirovabad have now formed a “worker militia” to help patrol the streets.
In Boston, Andrei D. Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace laureate, said that he and his wife, Yelena Bonner, who is in Moscow, had received information from Kirovabad that more than 138 Armenians had been killed and more than 200 wounded by Azerbaijani mobs. Sakharov is on his first trip to the United States.
But Gennady I. Gerasimov, the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman, said that, while there had been serious Azerbaijani attacks on Armenians, the death toll at Kirovabad stood at six. “There have been deaths, there are victims, but there has been no massacre as is being alleged,” Gerasimov said. Gerasimov said he understood a fourth soldier had been killed, in addition to the three who died in the initial clashes Tuesday.
Also, three Azerbaijanis were shot and killed by troops in two separate incidents Friday night in Kirovabad, according to Soviet officials. An Armenian also died in one of the incidents.
In the first incident, two Azerbaijanis were shot when they tried to crash through an army roadblock on the outskirts of an Armenian neighborhood after curfew, a duty officer at the Kirovabad Communist Party headquarters told journalists by telephone.
In the other incident, an elderly Armenian man and a relative were run down while walking along the street in Kirovabad by a car driven by Azerbaijanis, an official Armenian government spokesman said in Moscow. The older man was killed and the other injured. Patrolling soldiers then opened fire on the car, killing one Azerbaijani and wounding a second.
Col. Gen. Yuri V. Shatalin, commander of the Soviet Interior Ministry’s special riot troops, said in an interview with the Communist Party newspaper Pravda that despite government efforts to restore order in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the situation there remains “not just very complicated, but very tense.”
The government’s opponents are attempting “to destabilize public life and inflate national and ethnic problems to create a situation of anarchy” with the goal of gaining local power, Shatalin said.
While most of the violence has resulted from perceived grievances, he said, some appear to have been organized with political motivations. Government offices, police stations and other institutions have become the targets for demonstrators. “The situation has become more and more strained with the development of events,” he said.
A convoy of more than 40 buses, cars and trucks from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, which was trying to reach Kirovabad to evacuate some Armenians, was blocked by Azerbaijanis who had set up roadblocks on the main routes between the two Soviet republics.
Troops accompanying the convoy dispersed the Azerbaijanis, according to Armenian officials, but the Armenians were afraid to proceed without a larger military escort.
In reports late Saturday from Baku and Yerevan, the government newspaper Izvestia described the two capitals as generally quiet but tense, with troops deployed in large numbers in the downtown areas, at crossroads and around the Armenian quarter in Baku.
Both cities have been placed on “special status” with military commandants in effective control. Rallies, meetings and strikes have been banned, curfews have been imposed and troops have been given authority to detain people and make searches without warrants.
Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments and the central authorities in Moscow were sharply criticized for their slow and incomplete release of information about the unrest--and for the resulting rumors that fed further violence.
“Our soldiers are starved of information,” Shatalin complained, saying that even he did not have sufficient data to do his job.
Gen. Omelchenko said it has been “impossible to find up-to-date and accurate information in the republics and even in the central mass media.”
The problem has been exacerbated in Azerbaijan, where workers at the major publishing house refused to print Izvestia most of last week, accusing it of bias and asserting their right as Soviet workers to review the paper’s contents. Unable to convince the printers of its fairness, Izvestia has had to fly copies of each issue from Moscow .