Azeris say Armenia is stepping up attack

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MOSCOW - Azerbaijan yesterday said that Armenia had launched a new attack on an important southern town in the republic, broadening an offensive which has already captured one tenth of Azeri territory, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Azeri authorities said Armenian troops with tanks and artillery were trying to seize the town of Fizuli, just south of the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. Azerbaijan earlier said thousands of its citizens trapped by the Armenian offensive were at risk.

As tension in the Transcaucasus increased, the Turkish Milliyet newspaper said Turkish jets had flown reconnaissance sorties along the border with Armenia. The report was not confirmed by the armed forces. Azerbaijan says a tenth of the republic is in enemy hands after Armenian forces seized the important western town of Kelbadzhar and a broad swathe of territory adjoining Nagorny Karabakh, trapping around 15,000 civilians. Armenia denies its regular troops are involved, saying the fighting is being conducted by 'self-defence forces'.

An Azeri television journalist in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, said the government was assembling fresh combat units to repel the Armenian offensive. A women's society made a televised appeal for recruits to join a new female battalion. 'It was an act by women scandalised by the impotence of the men,' a female journalist said.

Azeri radio said President Abulfaz Elchibey, who declared a two-month state of emergency throughout the country on Friday, had appointed 21 military commanders of cities and districts. Tass said military patrols had appeared on Baku's streets to enforce the measures, which imposed a curfew and banned political activity. Mr Elchibey also imposed restrictions on entry, exit and travel within the country, as well as censorship. Tass said the military commander of Baku had appealed to the capital's inhabitants to keep calm. Azerbaijan says Armenian regular forces and Russian troops launched a two-pronged attack on Kelbadzhar on 27 March to drive a new land corridor through to Nagorny Karabakh.

Russian television said the commander of a Russian division in Armenia had denied reports that Russian troops took part. Armenia has a mutual defence pact with Russia and several other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), obliging Moscow to protect Yerevan if Armenia's territorial integrity is threatened. Azerbaijan, which is not party to the CIS treaty, has traditional close ties to Turkey, a Nato member. On Saturday, Turkey said it halted the passage of European aid to Armenia because of its recent attacks on Azeris.