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6 Armenians Die in Clash With Soviets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soviet troops patrolling Armenia were ambushed by militants inside a train station and fired back, killing six of the assailants, official media reported Sunday. The clash is certain to inflame passions in the Caucasus as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepares to leave the country.

According to the Tass news agency, Interior Ministry troops escorting a passenger train on the 120-mile-long journey from Kafan to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, were attacked by 15 gunmen in the capital’s main station.

“The soldiers, using their right to repel attack, opened fire in return,” Tass said. “As a result of the gunfight, five people were killed and two injured.”

One of the wounded militants died soon afterward, Tass said. Ten soldiers, including an officer, were wounded, three of them seriously. A bystander at the station was hospitalized after being hit by a bullet, it said.

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Accounts of the morning gun battle were still sketchy more than 12 hours later, but some Armenians reached by telephone claimed that a crowd had peacefully tried to persuade the soldiers to leave Yerevan and that the soldiers, fearing the crowd was about to seize their weapons, opened fire.

Satenik Saramazyan, a Yerevan-based spokeswoman for the Armenian National Movement, a nationalist group, charged the Moscow-based official media with trying to fan tensions in the republic of 3.5 million people and said that Tass was transmitting lies.

Whatever the cause, the deaths of six Armenian nationalists will exacerbate an already tense situation in the southern republic, on the boil for more than two years because of a territorial dispute and the armed feud this has engendered with the neighboring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

The Armenian National Movement had already called for widespread demonstrations today to mark “Armenian Statehood Recognition Day,” which commemorates Armenia’s brief independence from 1918 until it fell to the Bolsheviks two years later and was made a Soviet republic.

For the Kremlin, the deteriorating situation in Armenia was a new worry as Gorbachev prepared to travel to the United States and Canada, where he is scheduled to arrive Tuesday. The Soviet president is facing secession movements in the Baltic republics, including a unilateral declaration of independence by Lithuania, and a public increasingly worried and panicky about the consequences of new economic reforms.

Also, there is a feeling among some Soviets that when Gorbachev is out of the country, conservatives take the upper hand, leading to unpredictable zigzags in policy. For example, during a Gorbachev trip abroad in April, 1989, a crisis developed in another Caucasus republic, Georgia, as throngs of pro-independence demonstrators massed in front of government headquarters in Tbilisi.

Soviet soldiers attacked the crowd with trench-digging shovels and poison gas, killing 19 people.

In an interview with the Krasnaya Zvezda military newspaper, Col. Gen. Yuri V. Shatalin, commander of the Interior Ministry forces, called the situation in Armenia “tense and explosive.” On Friday, Tass said, speakers at a rally attended by 10,000 people “made seditious calls for clashes with the army and Interior Ministry troops.”

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Tass quoted L. Ter-Petrosyan, a leader of the Armenian National Movement, as demanding that Armenians “begin resolute action” and said he told the crowd that “all people committed to the idea of independence should pick up weapons.”

Saramazyan, the Armenian National Movement spokeswoman, said that on the contrary, leaders of the movement called for calm and did not ask people to arm themselves. “Tass is lying,” she said.

Shatalin told Krasnaya Zvezda that 1,145 submachine guns, 930 hunting rifles, 500 grenades and more than 570,000 cartridges have been stolen from authorities and are now in private hands, a huge arsenal in a country where few civilians possess firearms.

He also said a nationalist group called the “Armenian National Army” claims to be equipped with modern weapons and vehicles and to have training centers where volunteers are schooled by battle-hardened veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

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For more than two years, Armenia has been locked in a bitter and bloody quarrel with Azerbaijan over which should govern the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though its population is predominantly Armenian, the district has been an enclave within Azerbaijan since the 1920s.

In January, after massacres of Armenian residents of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, militants from the feuding republics engaged in full-blown civil warfare in the hills in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, using helicopters, artillery and tanks stolen from military stores or offered by their ethnic brethren in uniform.

Ethnic and religious factors also play a role in the dispute: Most Armenians are Christians, while the Azerbaijanis, a Turkic people, are predominantly Muslim. Armenians’ anger has also been directed at Moscow-based authorities, since the central government refuses to accede to their desires and allow the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia.

On May 20, Armenia defied Moscow and organized elections for its legislature inside Nagorno-Karabakh, an illegal action under Soviet law since it juridically belongs to Azerbaijan.

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Saramazyan asserted that more than 90% of the enclave’s eligible voters of Armenian origin turned out and that 10 of the 11 seats being contested in Armenia’s legislature were filled.

Last Thursday night, an army private was reported killed and three other soldiers wounded when they were attacked “at point-blank range” by armed Armenian militants at the bus terminal in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative center, Tass said.

In the ensuing gunfight, one of the assailants was killed and six others wounded, Tass said.

Krasnaya Zvezda reported last week that a crowd of Armenians in the city of Masis had prevented a convoy of 20 new T-72 battle tanks from being loaded on rail cars, shouting: “We know you’re going to help Azerbaijan! We won’t let you go!”

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