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Armenia, Azerbaijan Agree to a Cease-Fire : Caucasus: Moscow brokers truce in former Soviet Union’s longest-running conflict. But fighting continues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armenians and Azerbaijanis agreed Monday to a Russian-brokered cease-fire that offers a fragile hope of stopping the longest-running ethnic war in the former Soviet Union.

Dozens of other such truces have collapsed almost immediately in the bloody, six-year struggle over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. And even as representatives of the warring parties were signing the pact in Moscow on Monday, fighting was reported on the northeastern front in violation of a cease-fire reached less than two weeks ago.

Still, Monday’s truce is the first to attempt the physical separation of the combatants in stages: First comes the cease-fire, which was scheduled to take effect at midnight Monday. Next, all troops are to withdraw three to six miles from the front by May 25. Then, 49 observer posts, commanded by Russians, will be set up to monitor the cease-fire, and 1,800 peacekeeping troops are to be brought in to police the resulting buffer zone.

Armenian officials also agreed, in principle, to return some of the Azerbaijani territory seized in the past year.

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“It was the most productive meeting between the sides for six years,” Armenian Embassy spokesman Gamlet Gushyan said.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev hosted the peace talks, in keeping with Russia’s attempt to be a bigger player in peacemaking efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Middle East and especially the former Soviet Union.

The four-way pact is expected to be signed today by Grachev, Armenian Defense Minister Serzhik Sarkisyan, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Mamedrafi Mamedov and Samvel Babayan, chief of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces.

“There is no doubt--this is an extraordinary agreement,” said Konstantin E. Voyevodsky, an expert on Karabakh. “There has never been such a cease-fire before, with observation posts and peacekeeping forces. . . . We can assume that the peacekeeper--Russia--is more serious now than it was before.”

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The reaction in Azerbaijan, which has been taking a drubbing for the past year, was cooler. Evinch Abdulayeva, of the Azerinform news agency in Baku, described Azerbaijani public opinion as split between hawks and doves. Abdulayeva expressed doubt that Azerbaijani soldiers on the front lines would respect the cease-fire signed in Moscow.

Others reacted with dismay. “This is not so much an agreement as an act of capitulation by Azerbaijan,” said Arif Yusunov, a military historian and Azerbaijani opposition figure.

Yusunov said the peacekeepers--from Russia and possibly other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and commanded by Grachev’s deputy--are a far cry from the true, international peacekeeping force that Azerbaijan had wanted.

The oil-rich republic, with linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, joined the commonwealth only last winter and has bridled at allowing Russian troops back on its soil.

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“Russians are no guarantor of peace,” Yusunov said. “The Russian army can easily be bought for dollars.”

Azerbaijani opposition parties have branded as “a traitor” the chairman of the Parliament, who signed the cease-fire hammered out May 6 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and lawmakers are gathering signatures to replace him, Yusunov said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are both staggering under the economic strain of the war that has taken up to 15,000 lives on both sides in the six years since the mostly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh began lobbying the Soviet Union for independence from Azerbaijan.

Today, Azerbaijan is flooded with refugees from the estimated 650,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes--up to 50,000 this spring alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated.

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Yet each side continues to brace itself for more. Azerbaijani President Gaidar Aliyev has reportedly hired about 1,000 Afghan moujahedeen mercenaries to bolster his army. And though Armenia claims that its troops are not involved in fighting commanded from Karabakh, a group called the Armenian National Army has reportedly been dragging young men out of Armenia proper to fight in neighboring Azerbaijan.

The chairman of the Council of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk group, which has conducted countless failed negotiations, was quoted by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency as saying that a settlement of the conflict is closer than ever.

Aliyev reportedly agreed, noting that “once Baku realized the importance of reconciliation, one can say that we have approached a final solution of this problem,” the agency reported.

During the meeting, Grachev dodged a question from the Azerbaijani defense minister about the return of lands seized by Armenians.

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