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Soviet Riots Kill 25 Armenians : Azerbaijan: Russians in the capital of Baku tell of atrocities against minority group. Moscow flies in a division of troops.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rioting mobs killed at least 25 people Sunday in the Armenian quarter of Baku, the capital of the southern Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, bringing warnings from leaders in neighboring Armenia that the volatile region is close to civil war.

“Gangs of hooligans have been committing atrocities,” the official Soviet news agency Tass reported from Baku, describing the attacks as “pogroms” aimed at the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan. “Preliminary information puts the number of dead at 25.”

Lenin Street, one of Baku’s main avenues, was described as drenched with blood. Russians living in the Azerbaijani capital spoke with horror of seeing Armenian neighbors shot at point-blank range, hurled from balconies, burned alive and even dismembered by the rampaging mobs of Azerbaijanis.

“We have seen murders here of the cruelest sort,” a veteran Soviet journalist said by telephone from Baku. “Men, women and children, the young and the old alike, were attacked and often killed because they were Armenians. That alone--to be Armenian in Azerbaijan--was a virtual sentence of death.”

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Radio Moscow said late Sunday evening that the unconfirmed death toll stood at more than 30 in Baku--all of them believed to be Armenians or the spouses of Armenians. Several soldiers in the internal security force were also reported killed in the weekend fighting.

As the attacks spread to outlying areas of Azerbaijan on Sunday afternoon, with official reports of dozens of further casualties, the central government in Moscow flew a division of riot troops into the republic to restore order, and a senior military commander called for the imposition of a state of emergency.

But the official Soviet news media, reporting from Baku and elsewhere in the region, described scenes so reminiscent of the start of the Lebanese civil war 15 years ago that 20 divisions of the Red Army might be required to end the growing conflict. Tass acknowledged in one report that police had no hope of restoring order themselves.

Armenian leaders, speaking at a rally Sunday of an estimated 300,000 people in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, angrily urged the formation of an Armenian army to avenge the deaths of their kinsmen in Baku, dismissing the central government’s efforts to restore order as ineffectual and too late to halt escalation of the strife.

Ashot Manucharyan, a member of Armenia’s nationalist Karabakh Committee, called for Armenians to volunteer for new “self-defense units” and to bring their guns to the committee’s offices to arm the special force. Preparations were also made to airlift squads of Armenian police and medical personnel to Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh to help Armenian residents there.

“If our government will not carry out its duties, we must organize to defend ourselves,” Manucharyan told the people at the Yerevan rally, thousands of whom wanted to march immediately to Baku. “Our hopes must rest only on ourselves. We must trust no one but ourselves.”

The clashes in Baku were the bloodiest in nearly two years of feuding between the Azerbaijanis, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, and the Armenians, who are predominantly Christian. Thirty-two people, most of them Armenians, were killed during three days of rioting in the Azerbaijani oil center of Sumgait in February, 1988; at least 150 more have died in fighting there since.

Kremlin Aides Sent In

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The Kremlin on Sunday dispatched top officials at the head of special Communist Party delegations to resolve the crisis. Yevgeny M. Primakov, one of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s closest advisers, went to Baku, while Nikolai Slyunkov, a member of the ruling Politburo, went to Yerevan.

And what began as a territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh--an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, which remains besieged, under virtual martial law and the focus of great tension--has grown into a conflict that threatens the central government’s ability to maintain order and to rule the country.

“We march, we fight and, if necessary, we die,” another Karabakh Committee speaker said at the Yerevan rally. “But, if we die, we will take not one, not 10 but 100 or more Azeris with each one of us. . . .

“Now is the time for the Armenian nation to make its stand. We call upon our brothers in the diaspora to come home, and quickly, for this is it--we survive or we die as a nation.”

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Thousands of Azerbaijani guerrillas, reinforced by even more men from other districts, were reported by Soviet authorities on Sunday evening to be attacking Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, with dozens of people killed or wounded.

Describing the situation there as “extremely tense,” Tass said that the skirmishes had continued for three days and had spread to adjacent districts with dozens of people killed, wounded and missing.

Azerbaijanis had kidnaped the entire government and Communist Party leadership of one Armenian district, according to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Armenians had then taken Azerbaijani hostages in reprisal.

Internal security troops, supported by military helicopters carrying paratroopers, were fired upon Sunday but succeeded in landing in a virtual combat assault in an attempt to stop the Azerbaijani assault on Armenian villages, according to Tass.

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At least two Interior Ministry soldiers, one an officer, were killed over the weekend and five were wounded in separate attacks, apparently by Azerbaijani guerrillas, on the military barracks in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Tass. Four other Interior Ministry soldiers were reported to be missing after their patrol was attacked while responding to an Azerbaijani attack on an Armenian village.

But clashes that were once confined to Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous district of 180,000 people far from urban centers, spread over the weekend to many other districts of Azerbaijan where small Armenian communities remained.

Officials in the predominantly Armenian district of Shaumyan, close to Nagorno-Karabakh, sent a telegram to Gorbachev warning that open warfare is close. “The possibility of the outbreak of civil war is quite real,” the telegram said.

The conservative newspaper Soviet Russia on Sunday described the region around Nagorno-Karabakh as a virtual “war zone,” and Red Star, the armed forces newspaper, reported in detail the escalation in fighting between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to the point where each side now has its own helicopters as well as fully equipped light infantry.

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In Baku, armed groups of Azerbaijanis were patrolling the streets, searching for Armenians, according to journalists from the Soviet central press. Squads, using lists of Armenians residents from local government officials, were going door to door in search of those who had escaped the first assault.

One Armenian woman in Baku told friends in Moscow by telephone that she was warned early last week to leave before she got “an olive"--slang for a bullet.

She could only buy a ticket for today--and then only by using a friend’s identity documents. Her fate is unknown.

The current fighting apparently began in Baku on Saturday when two Azerbaijanis, members of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, told an Armenian family to leave the city, according to accounts on Radio Moscow and in Izvestia, the government newspaper.

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The Armenians resisted, and they had an ax for a weapon. The Azerbaijanis were badly hurt in the ensuing struggle--one died and the other remains hospitalized in serious condition.

The news of the Armenian resistance and the Azerbaijani casualties enraged a rally of more than 150,000 people who gathered in Baku, a city of 1.7 million. At the Azerbaijan Front’s urging, speakers proposed the creation of a “council for national security to protect Azerbaijanis.”

They also demanded the resignation of the republic’s government unless it takes drastic measures to reassert its authority over Nagorno-Karabakh, and others recounted the recent Azerbaijani “success” in breaking across the Soviet-Iranian border by tearing down the fences and forcing Moscow and Tehran to agree to all-but-free movement across their frontier for Azerbaijanis.

But there were calls as well, according to correspondents for the central Soviet news media, for the forcible expulsion of the remaining Armenians from Baku, a remnant of no more than 20,000 after two years of anti-Armenian violence there, and from the rest of Azerbaijan.

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“Calls were made at the rally to drive Armenians out of the city,” the Radio Moscow correspondent reported from Baku in one of the frankest dispatches heard on Soviet radio. “Among the crowd, anti-Armenian slogans were shouted, and then the most terrible thing of all began--the pogroms.”

The Azerbaijanis, whose leaders appeared to have lists, set out in pursuit of Armenians still living in the city, the correspondent said.

“It was not possible to avert many sad and tragic cases,” he continued. “But in dozens of others, the militia (police) managed to save people.”

In others, he added, Azerbaijanis sheltered their Armenian neighbors, preventing an even greater slaughter.

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“Operational bulletins constantly contain reports about hostages being taken, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, about exchanges of gunfire, about tragic events,” he continued.

“This republic is on the boil. Hearts are bleeding, and the police are trying to do everything they can.”

Although reinforcements are arriving, “What guarantee is there that the frightful thing that took place last night will not be repeated?”

Esther Schrader, in Yerevan, contributed to this story.

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