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Azerbaijani Leader Resigns Amid Protests, New Battles : Nagorno-Karabakh: He is blamed for the deaths of scores of citizens at the hands of Armenian militants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Azerbaijan’s embattled president resigned on Friday amid mass protests, new offensives in Nagorno-Karabakh and accusations that he was to blame for the deaths of scores of Azerbaijanis at the hands of Armenian militants last week.

Ayaz Mutalibov, 53, who became Azerbaijan’s first freely elected president only six months ago, was brought down by popular discontent over what nationalists considered a too-soft policy on Nagorno-Karabakh, the mountainous enclave that both Armenians and Azerbaijanis claim.

His resignation and temporary replacement by the chairman of the national Parliament was considered likely to lead to a more aggressive Azerbaijani line on Nagorno-Karabakh and further escalation of the fighting there.

As Mutalibov resigned Friday evening, reports were already filtering out of Nagorno-Karabakh of a heavy, armor-backed Azerbaijani attack on the Armenian-populated town of Askeran and the nearby village of Nakhichevanik. News agencies reported at least 27 dead.

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It was in that very area that scores of refugees from the Azerbaijani-populated town of Khojaly were reportedly gunned down by Armenian militants last week. Azerbaijanis claim that a total of 1,000 Khojaly residents may have died in the Armenian attack on the town; about 200 bodies have been recovered. Denounced for not having taken measures that would have prevented the Khojaly deaths, Mutalibov fought the mounting demands for his resignation fiercely over the last few days.

But the Parliament building in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku on Friday was besieged by several thousand demonstrators demanding that he step down; aides said he had been given a final ultimatum by opposition leaders.

“Mutalibov could not defend his homeland and his people,” said Abulfaz Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, which leads the political opposition. “He took the oath and did not keep it.”

Finally, in an exhausted speech to Parliament, Mutalibov gave in, allowing that “in all our problems, we are all guilty. I am guilty, too.” He told reporters in Baku, “I am bowing to the will of the people.”

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Mutalibov’s resignation opens the field to other Azerbaijani politicians who, unlike Mutalibov, a longtime Communist Party official who looked to Moscow for guidance, are more oriented toward their Islamic counterparts in Turkey and Iran.

“The new forces who want ‘war to the end’ will come to power,” said Rafik Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani academic and specialist on the Karabakh conflict. “Many people think Mutalibov was a man of Moscow and Armenian victories were his fault. If Mutalibov is replaced by another man, policy will be changed from Moscow toward Iranian, Turkish and generally Muslim positions.”

Azerbaijani politicians also indicated that Mutalibov’s resignation puts Azerbaijan’s membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States in doubt. “Azerbaijan has not adopted the Commonwealth documents,” Aliyev said. “Mutalibov signed them, but they have not been approved by Parliament. What Mutalibov signed has no force, because it has not been ratified.”

Aliyev’s Popular Front claimed responsibility for bringing Mutalibov down, saying the group had never recognized him as president because he was elected--in a one-man race--while Azerbaijan was still under a state of emergency and the Popular Front was not free to campaign.

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The Parliament meets on Tuesday to choose a successor. The Popular Front has proposed handing power over to a 50-member National Council within Parliament and holding new elections in several months.

Normally, such a caretaker government would make no major changes in policy.

But the course of events in Nagorno-Karabakh may force it into hasty action.

The withdrawal of the last former Soviet troops in the enclave, the 366th Motorized Infantry Regiment, this week unleashed a rash of new battles, and Azerbaijani officials say they expect the bloodshed to mount.

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“The fighting will, naturally, continue, because no one has declared a cease-fire,” said Ekhtibar Mamedov, chairman of the opposition National Independence Party of Azerbaijan. “It will simply be impossible to stop military action in the nearest future. We will have an escalation of the conflict this month.”

Mutalibov had recently gained a reputation for stubborn nationalism among Commonwealth leaders, because he insisted on creating an Azerbaijani national army. But he also repeatedly agreed to peace talks and mediation in an attempt to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Without his influence, Azerbaijan may be more likely to be willing to enter full-fledged war with Armenia beyond the bounds of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea country of 7 million bordering on Turkey and Iran and known for its oil production and processing, is considered one of the more conservative of the former Soviet republics. But strains of nationalism, fueled by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, have grown more and more powerful over the last several years.

In January, 1990, then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev sent troops into Baku after rioting Azerbaijanis killed dozens of Armenians there. For months afterward, under the strict regime and curfew of the state of emergency, the Popular Front--which had been the main expression of Azerbaijani nationalism--remained largely silent; by the time elections were conducted in September, it had not regained its former strength.

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But with Mutalibov’s resignation and the impact of the protesters that surrounded the Parliament building, the front has come back into its own and appears likely to dominate Azerbaijani politics in the future.

“Mutalibov resigned under the pressure of the Popular Front,” Mamedov of the National Independence Party said proudly, “and of the people.”

Andrei Ostroukh, a researcher in the Times Moscow Bureau, contributed to this report.

Prospects Grow for More Bloodshed

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Azerbaijan’s change in leadership may lead to escalation of the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian enclave that Muslim Azerbaijan has controlled since 1923. An official at the Azerbaijani Mission in Moscow predicted the war would escalate because Ayaz Mutalibov had held back hawks in Parliament.

Events Leading to Resignation

Azerbaijan says Armenian militants massacre at least 1,000 Azerbaijanis on Feb. 25-26 in Khojaly. Two hundred bodies have been recovered.

In the wake of the attack, pressure on President Mutalibov to step up the battle against Armenian militants grows.

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The withdrawal of the last former Soviet troops in the enclave this week unleashes a rash of new battles.

Azerbaijani lawmakers assemble Thursday for an emergency session. Thousands of people rally outside the Parliament building demanding Mutalibov’s resignation.

Mutalibov resigns Friday and is replaced by the chairman of the national Parliament.

Azerbaijan launches a fierce offensive against Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, seizing and burning a village not far from the site of the alleged massacre, news reports say.

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Source: Times Staff and Wire Reports


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