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Armenia Forces Seize Key City in Azerbaijan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armenian forces seized the Azerbaijani border city and district of Kelbadzhar on Saturday after four days of shelling, taking control of nearly 10% of Azerbaijan’s territory and driving thousands of inhabitants into harsh retreat over snow-covered mountains.

The offensive was one of the biggest Armenian victories in the 5-year-old ethnic conflict between the former Soviet republics over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. It gave Armenia sway over the entire 1,500-square-mile strip of mountain terrain separating the enclave from Armenia proper.

“What happened today radically changes the military and geopolitical situation in the area,” said Lt. Khafiz Gaibov, an Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman. “The territory occupied by the Armenian forces is as big as Nagorno-Karabakh itself.” The area of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave is 1,700 square miles.

Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey declared a 60-day nationwide state of emergency, press censorship, an overnight curfew and a ban on strikes and mass meetings. His government ordered men ages 18 to 27 to report for military duty.

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Gaibov said at least 150 civilians were killed by artillery fire on Kelbadzhar or by exposure to the cold during a hasty evacuation with their livestock over a single mountain pass. The two sides reported 140 combatants killed in four days of fighting.

The attack disrupted peace talks in Geneva among the United States, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Tofig Gassimov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, said the talks, which began several months ago, cannot go on unless Armenian forces withdraw from Kelbadzhar.

Turkey immediately imposed an embargo on food aid passing through its territory to Armenia.

Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been fighting for self-rule against Muslim Azerbaijan since 1988. The conflict in the Caucasus Mountain region intensified after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the two countries became independent. More than 3,000 people have died in five years of combat.

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The enclave is led by ultranationalist Armenians of the Dashnak movement, the main domestic opposition to Armenia’s government. They are funded by the Armenian Diaspora concentrated in France and the United States.

During most of the conflict, Turkey’s Muslim leadership has helped Azerbaijan enforce a blockade that choked off most food and fuel supplies to landlocked Armenia, forcing that country to endure three straight winters with dwindling heat and electricity.

But under pressure from the United States and France, Turkey recently has been allowing up to 1,000 tons of grain a day to pass by rail or road to Armenia and was considering selling it electricity.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Erdal Inonu announced an embargo of the assistance Saturday.

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“Nobody should expect Turkey to allow the passage of aid to a country that says it is starving and poor, yet has the military power to burn and wreck cities where thousands of people live,” he said.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia’s national armed forces of leading the offensive eastward from Armenia with support from Russian tanks, warplanes and mountain troops. Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia but professes neutrality in the conflict.

The Armenian government denies any direct role in the fighting, which it says is conducted by “self-defense forces” in Nagorno-Karabakh. Reports from Armenia said the defense forces have pushed westward, widening the so-called Lachin corridor through which the besieged enclave has received weapons, food and other vital supplies from Armenia for the past 11 months.

Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan sent a letter last week to the defense forces’ leadership expressing concern over the offensive, according to Tigran Magdalyan, director of the Armenian news agency AILUR.

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Magdalyan said the defense forces decided to ignore Ter-Petrosyan’s appeal and capture Kelbadzhar because the Azerbaijani army had turned the city into a launching point for artillery attacks on their positions in the Lachin corridor.

“The corridor means life for the population of Karabakh,” Magdalyan said. “I don’t think this territory will be returned to Azerbaijan. It is important to keep it to ensure the security of the corridor.”

Both sides reported the collapse of Azerbaijani defenses in Kelbadzhar on Saturday after what the Azerbaijani foreign minister called “incessant, massive artillery fire.”

Azerbaijan’s presidential office said 28,000 civilians fled the city, most of them on foot but some by helicopter. The Defense Ministry said 15,000 others were trapped in 57 nearby villages captured or surrounded by the Armenians.

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Magdalyan said civilians were allowed to leave the city peacefully. He said 40 Armenian soldiers died in the fighting. Azerbaijan reported 100 of its soldiers were killed.

Sergei M. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau and special correspondent Hugh Pope in Istanbul contributed to this story.

Armenian Offensive

The Armenian seizure of the Azerbaijani city and district of Kelbadzhar gives Armenia control of nearly 10% of Azerbaijan’s territory.

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