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Azerbaijan Troops Launch Karabakh Offensive : Conflict: Dozens could be dead, and an angry Armenia threatens direct intervention in the war over the disputed enclave.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Azerbaijani militias, reportedly backed by attack aircraft and scores of tanks, pushed into the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh on Saturday in a strong offensive that prompted Armenia to threaten direct intervention in the 4-year-old war.

The Azerbaijanis, who had lost their last foothold in Karabakh last month, took at least five villages in tough fighting believed to have left dozens dead, reports from the region said.

Azerbaijani officials, however, played down the offensive, saying that the captured villages had been taken and retaken several times before and that it was hard to tell anymore who the attackers and who the defenders were.

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Azerbaijan also accused Armenia of attacking first by moving on the Azerbaijani city of Agdam and its surrounding villages, triggering this latest episode in the festering dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan populated mostly by Armenians.

Saturday’s fighting appeared to be one of the conflict’s bigger clashes--and it also brought signals of new policies from both sides.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry warned that growing Azerbaijani stockpiles of weapons, stolen from former Soviet arsenals and now seen at work, “will be used to annihilate the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Armenia could “have no choice but to take decisive action to provide the necessary support and assistance to defend the rights and security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” the ministry said in a statement.

That statement appeared to signal a willingness to shift from the longstanding Armenian government policy of maintaining that Armenia, as a country, is not involved in the war.

“There are Armenians living in Karabakh, and the republic will take measures to defend them,” Garnik Badalyan, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, told the Russian Information Agency.

If Armenia goes ahead with its threat and intervenes directly, it could be crossing the last threshold separating it from full-fledged war with Azerbaijan, its neighbor in the Caucasus Mountains in the south of the former Soviet Union.

On the Azerbaijani side, the offensive coincided with the announcement of official election results naming Abulfez Elchibey the new president of Azerbaijan, raising the question of whether Elchibey, a Popular Front leader, was launching an aggressive new policy.

Militarily, the Azerbaijani offensive marked the first time that several groups of fighters had been coordinated under joint command, said Leila Yunusova, the spokeswoman for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry.

“This is the first time our military leadership managed to bring together some seven large armed groups that hitherto acted mostly independently, like guerrillas, without any coordination whatsoever,” she said. “That may partially explain our heavy defeats (earlier) this year.”

The main battles were reported along Karabakh’s eastern border with Azerbaijan proper. Sources in Karabakh told the Interfax news agency that thousands of Azerbaijani soldiers were taking part in the offensive, backed by at least 100 armored vehicles and tanks, as well as planes and helicopters.

Each side has accused the other of using chemical weapons in the battle.

Armenian forces reported that they shot down an Azerbaijani fighter plane, but there were otherwise few reports of Armenian victories, in contrast to recent weeks, when Armenians appeared to outnumber and outfight the Azerbaijanis.

“The Armenian defenders are holding out heroically, but they are seriously outnumbered and overwhelmed by the enemy’s significant superiority in combat equipment and arms,” said Samvel Dokholyan, duty officer at the Armenian Parliament.


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