Pro-Moscow Troops Seize 3 Armenian Villages : Ethnic unrest: Several atrocities are reported. The Kremlin says it is trying to curb lawlessness. Local officials call it terrorism.


Fighting widened Tuesday in the strife-torn Soviet Caucasus as troops loyal to Moscow seized three more Armenian villages and assaulted two others by helicopter, local officials said. Armenia’s leader said the Kremlin is out to overthrow him, but a Soviet general called him a liar.

Despite claims from Kremlin leaders all the way up to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that Soviet forces are only out to seize the weapons of Armenian “bandits” in the eight-day “Operation Ring,” numerous atrocities were reported by eyewitnesses and Moscow-based media alike.

“Customs that come from the Dark Ages have again been used,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper lamented. “Who could conceivably mistake an 82-year-old man for a hit man? Nevertheless, he was riddled with bullets in his own bed.”


An Armenian economist, Filaret Berikyan, told reporters in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan that he had seen mutilations “too repulsive to describe” in Getashen, an Armenian settlement in Azerbaijan that was one of the first targeted in Operation Ring.

He said he had counted 20 dead, some of whom had apparently been scalped.

Raffi Hovannisian of Los Angeles, director of the Yerevan office of the Armenian Assembly of America, said by telephone from an Armenian district of Azerbaijan that he had seen a refugee from the fighting “whose scalp had been cut 180 degrees around, from ear to ear.”

On Tuesday, Soviet troops and Azerbaijani police units backed by tanks and helicopters seized three villages in the Goris region of southern Armenia near the Azerbaijani frontier--Kornidzor, Tekh and Shornukh--and arrested more than 20 people, mostly police officers, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s president, said at the Parliament building in Yerevan.

“Today, military operations are continuing on a larger scale,” Ter-Petrosyan told reporters.

The Moscow-based Interfax news agency said a total of six villages were under assault and that Armenian police were retreating without using their guns.

Ter-Petrosyan said he was informed that Soviet army helicopters were firing on Kirants, near Goris; Armenian leaders also reported a helicopter-borne assault on the village of Khanzuresk.

The weary-looking Armenian president rejected Gorbachev’s contention that the sole aim of the operation is the disarming of vigilantes, purportedly to ensure that Armenia’s running feud with Azerbaijan, fanned into violence by a territorial quarrel, is resolved by political means alone.

“You do not disarm people with such methods,” Ter-Petrosyan said. “What they want is to terrorize the Armenian people and to obtain by any means the resignation of the legal authorities.”

The deputy chief of the Soviet Interior Ministry troops, Lt. Gen. Boris K. Smyslov, said Ter-Petrosyan is spreading “lies” and “rubbish” about events in the Caucasus and defended the actions of his men. He placed blame for the violence on the Armenian side.

“Every day, even now, Armenian militants fire on Azerbaijani territory not only with their firearms but also with anti-hail guns,” Smyslov told a group of Western correspondents in Moscow, referring to a World War II-vintage antiaircraft gun at least 85 millimeters in size.

Deputy Defense Minister Konstantin Kochetov also staunchly defended the actions of the regular army, saying Soviet soldiers are “struggling not against the innocent population but against gunmen, seizing illegally obtained weapons, including those captured as a result of criminal attacks on depots of the Transcaucasus Military District.”

Armenian leaders, however, asserted that what the Soviet soldiers and Azerbaijani special “black beret” police are trying to neutralize is a lawfully regulated militia of a sovereign Soviet republic.

“These armed groups are legal; they are under the control of the Armenian Interior Ministry,” maintained Khachik Stambultyan, a member of the Parliament’s ruling Presidium.

Ter-Petrosyan told reporters that 23 people were killed when Soviet soldiers and Interior Ministry troops, backed by helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery, stormed Voskepar, a town of 2,300 people in northeastern Armenia, on Monday. Eleven of the dead in the attack were police officers, he said.

Reporters who toured the hilly region a day after the attack saw houses that had been demolished by artillery shells. Voskepar itself was sealed off, and Soviet troops halted cars at a roadblock.

Local police said the death toll had not been 23, as Ter-Petrosyan reported, but 15.

A delegation of members of the Russian Federation Parliament, sent by the federation’s leader, Boris N. Yeltsin, to investigate the bloodshed, brought the officers’ bodies out of Voskepar on Monday evening.

Interfax said Yeltsin phoned Gorbachev to discuss “the extremely complicated situation in the area” and was in contact with Ter-Petrosyan and Azerbaijan’s president, Ayaz N. Mutalibov.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the violence and urged the Soviet central government to act quickly to stop the fighting.

“We have conveyed to Soviet authorities our concern over the situation and have urged that steps be taken quickly to prevent further bloodshed,” the department said in a formal statement.

“We deeply regret the loss of life and hope that all parties to this dispute will step back from confrontation and rely upon reason and restraint.”

Azerbaijani officials continued to blame Armenia for the violence and said that Azerbaijan, and not its neighbor, is the victim.

Meanwhile, refugees streamed away from the conflict zone, with Armenian authorities accusing the Kremlin and Azerbaijan of trying to depopulate ethnic Armenian villages in Azerbaijan, some of which reportedly are 1,500 years old.

“A real deportation is being carried out--old people, women, children are forced out of their houses,” Shaliko Manykyan, a state farm director who fled from Getashen, said in a telephone interview from Shaumyanovsk, a predominantly Armenian town in Azerbaijan where hundreds of refugees are regrouping.

“All around the clock, shots can be heard,” Manykyan said.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this story.