40,000 flee Armenian tank offensive: Yerevan's military strategy leads to an 'annexation' of neighbouring Azeri territory

THE LAST of more than 40,000 exhausted Azeri refugees limped down the snow-bound flanks of the Morvan mountain, leaving no doubt about the impact of Armenia's latest land-grab that has left it in control of nearly one-tenth of Azerbaijan.

Armenian claims that the last offensive was a one-off retaliatory action by irregulars in the Armenian- populated Azeri enclave, Nagorny Karabakh, were rejected by fleeing Azeris, among them Kurdish shepherds, village policemen and haggard militia survivors.

'Fire came from Armenia to the west and Karabakh to the east. Their soldiers scaled down the cliffs to the west. We hardly knew what happened, we just got out of there,' said Jafar Jafarov, one of many soldiers of the young and ill-disciplined Azeri army smarting from public rebukes administered by the Azeri President, Abulfaz Elchibey.

From a military perspective, Armenia's capture of the Kelbadzhar district last week was not a second corridor between Armenia proper and Nagorny Karabakh. It amounts to a virtual annexation of the mountainous enclave to Armenia by a 60-mile wide belt of Azeri hill country, easily defended by the new front line along the 9,000-feet high ridges of the Moro mountain range to the north and the Lachin valley at the south.

Steady Armenian advances since the war started in 1988 were only briefly set back by Azeri successes in mid-1992. Now Azeris worry that recent heavy Armenian shelling of the Fizuli district may signal an attack to capture a wide tongue of Azeri land that would link southern Karabakh to the border with Iran.

'What's the difference between here and what the Serbs are doing in Bosnia?' said one staff officer at the Azeri northern headquarters near Ganja. 'When will the world realise that what the Armenians want is a greater Armenia? We do not believe they will stop even with what they have got now.'

Azerbaijan's main ally, Turkey, has so far managed only to give moral support and raise international awareness. But there are signs that it will only take a small push to bring Turkish military intervention. 'The situation here is medieval, the Armenians are not playing by the rules. There could be a very ugly war in the Caucasus,' said a diplomat in the Azeri capital, Baku.

There is certainly not much hope the Azeri government can do much in the way of a counter-attack, due to divisions in its leadership, the hostility of Russia and the weakness of its military organisation.

Ten days after the Armenians started their offensive, Azeri tank units finally arrived on Monday at the main mountain pass to block any Armenian attempt to cross. But the young reinforcements had mostly had just two months' training and some of their inherited Soviet equipment was not in the best working order.

Refugees who had spent several days and nights on the road herded flocks of sheep, cattle and donkeys down past exhausted groups of their former defenders who had fled with them. They cursed the Azeri government for 'selling them out' as much as the Armenians.

Some of the refugees gathered near the front, hoping to get news of relatives left behind in the Kelbadzhar region, once home to about 65,000 Azeris. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday an estimated 18,000 Azeris had braved treacherous mountain paths to escape the Armenian advance and a further 27,000 were trapped. A UNHCR statement said about 700 civilians, many suffering from severe frost-bite, were arriving daily in northern Azerbaijan from the Kelbadzhar region.

The government says at least 40,000 refugees have been registered, although local officials said the number could be as high as 55,000. After years of practice in a war that has displaced at least half a million of their people, Azeri officials quickly dispersed the new arrivals by bus and truck to at least 40 destinations to live in schools, collective farms and other public buildings.

'The one good thing about this wave is that there appear to be few casualties here. But we still don't know what happened to the thousands stuck on the other side,' said a member of a rehousing committee.

The chief district doctor said he had registered 42 deaths and 42 people wounded. About 100 people had been treated for frost-bite and there are fears that hundreds may have frozen to death while trying to cross remote mountain passes.

Officials were dismissive of international assistance, demanding to know why Azeri refugees counted for nothing compared to an outcry over suffering in the past winter in Armenia. Azeris also fail to understand how the Armenian lobby in the US managed to block aid to Azerbaijan while the republic is losing the war.

'You ask what we need, but I tell you that the main problem is when a country takes a (piece) of your country,' said another rehousing committee member. 'Rather than food, blankets or anything else, the most important thing is for the Armenian attacks to stop.'

(Photograph omitted)

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