Caucasus Conflict Could Lead to Regional War : Armenia-Azerbaijan: Officials worry that border fighting might provoke intervention by Turkey, Iran and Russia.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stuttering nearby, the hollow crack of rifle fire greeted Capt. Sergei Akopian as the barrel-chested veteran of the war in Afghanistan strode toward Armenia's border with Azerbaijan.

Up a steep rise scattered with purple wildflowers, nine of his men were ranged along the ruddy earth walls of their trenches, gazing out over the green hills toward an enemy they could not see. More shots snapped, somewhere close.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are not technically at war, but Akopian's ragtag Armenian guardsmen know better.

"War is not like a wedding," he said. "You don't wait to be invited. It starts and it ends."

On Wednesday it was announced that leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed on a cease-fire to start Friday night. But several such accords between the Caucasus republics have fallen apart in the past, and the prognosis for this one was considered little better.

For months, almost the entire 300-mile border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has periodically erupted in exchanges of fire, skirmishes and even direct combat. Villagers in Vahan, just a hilly road away from the border, say they have gotten so used to the thunder of shells that they fear that something is wrong when a long silence sets in.

Armenian officials call the border fighting a sideshow to the pitched battles of Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed enclave within Azerbaijan.

But it is a sideshow that has created hundreds of thousands of refugees and cost scores of lives.

It also has the potential to pull the two former Soviet republics into the full-fledged, country-to-country war they have thus far avoided.

"It could turn into an all-out conflagration overnight," Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian said.

Both sides openly chafe at the political restraints that hold them back.

"They want us to turn to aggression, so they can bring Turkey and Iran into the war," Armenian Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Gasparyan said. "They want to provoke us. We understand all this, so we restrain ourselves."

"For four years we've been holding back," he said. "They spit in your face, and you wipe it off and say everything is fine."

Azerbaijan has similar complaints, particularly concerning Armenian attacks on Nakhichevan, an enclave of Azerbaijanis within Armenia that has repeatedly come under border fire.

"Every day, our border regions are shot up by Armenia," said Takhir Agayev, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani mission in Moscow who estimated that border conflicts have created 200,000 refugees within Azerbaijan. "They're trying to force us to take steps."

Each side explains the border war as an attempt by its enemy to divert forces away from the real fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia also believes that Azerbaijan is trying to force it to admit that Armenia proper, and not merely the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, is at war.

Akopian said he had discerned an Azerbaijani pattern of sending in good troops and armor to try to break through one spot in the border, thus forcing Armenia to beef up its forces there, then leaving the ground to less competent guardsmen and moving on to another spot.

About two weeks ago, Akopian's men said, because of their own "negligence," Azerbaijani soldiers took the very trenches where they now sit. Akopian's unit, known as the Krasnoselsk Border Post, then moved in to dislodge them, and claims to have killed 16 Azerbaijanis in the process.

Last month, Azerbaijanis took Artsvashen, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that was once an easy bus ride from Vahan. Now, the road goes off into a no man's land occupied by Azerbaijan but vulnerable to Armenian bullets.

Azerbaijanis asked about Artsvashen point out that Armenia did exactly the same thing to three former Azerbaijani enclaves in Armenia, occupying them and sending the residents fleeing to their ethnic homeland.

Artsvashen refugees, their anger still fresh, abound in Krasnoselsk, and city officials worry about how to house and feed them, particularly with field workers reluctant to risk harvesting that could be interrupted by rocket attacks.

Brown craters left by shells pockmark the green slopes between Krasnoselsk and Vahan, and long brown stripes in the loam mark the trenches that the Armenians themselves have dug for defense.

Officials worry even more, however, about whether the Azerbaijani conquest of Artsvashen will mean that local Armenians will be subjected to even more shelling from across the border. Twenty-eight people in the region have already been killed, they said.

"Now they have big accumulations of arms there (in Artsvashen), and they're bombing us and other villages every day," said a worried Zare Sarkisian, the Krasnoselsk regional chief. "Every day, they bother us."

Atabek Zagaryan awoke on Sept. 14 to find that a Grad missile, a later model of the Soviet-made Katyusha rocket, had crashed into his living room, demolishing most of what was inside but leaving a small chandelier hanging crookedly from the ceiling.

His neighbor, nurse Alvart Apresian, has been luckier. And just to make sure her luck holds, she is as nice as can be to Akopian and his border division, supplying them with food and general support.

"We won't let our houses be taken," she said with defiant cheer. "Not until we're dead."

For all the villagers' support, Akopian and his men need more. Armenia is now beginning to create a formal national army, something Azerbaijan began months ago. Among the new Armenian army's main features are units of official border guards to replace frontier volunteers.

But an army is an expensive thing, and so far Akopian estimates that the transformation of his unit from volunteer guard to professional army is only about half done. Along with money, equipment and uniform problems, it takes time and persuasion to turn amateurs into real, disciplined soldiers, he said.

The border troops of the future may be more organized than the current bands totaling about 400 men around Krasnoselsk, but it is hard to imagine any soldiers with more enthusiasm for their task.

"We're defending the motherland, so we're in a good mood," said Arsen Dzhiloyan, a black-bearded guardsman toting a Kalashnikov assault rifle and wearing a heavy silver cross between the collars of his camouflage suit. Before he comes for his shift at the trenches, Dzhiloyan always crosses himself and says, "God be with us."

"Our God will always watch over us," he said, his words interrupted by a small burst of shots.

Gagik Yeremyan, a 26-year-old high school teacher stationed in a nearby trench, said that he planned to bring his students to the border to teach them the meaning of patriotism.

"I don't sit at home," he said. "I come to the border to defend the motherland, and they should see this with their own eyes. Our nation has fought for years to hold on to the right to live on its own land."

Although the Azerbaijanis deny it, Akopian and his men are convinced that their enemies attack the Krasnoselsk region because they eventually want to break through to mountain-ringed Lake Sevan, and from there move on to Yerevan, Armenia's capital.

That, said Foreign Minister Hovannisian, would mean all-out war for sure. And an all-out war could bring in NATO-member Turkey on Azerbaijan's side and Russia on Armenia's side, exploding into a regional conflict.

"Don't you think this war will spread to the whole world?" asked Grigory Iskandarian, a bleary-eyed refugee from Artsvashen. "It feels that way to me."

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