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Azeris seek halt to onslaught by Armenians

ARMENIAN artillery shelled the near-abandoned Azeri town of Fizuli yesterday as Azeri deputies debated whether to call for United Nations peace-keepers to stop Armenia's advances.

The Azeri case seems as hopeless as that of Bosnia, Western diplomats say, despite the fact that Azerbaijan's new leader says his republic has lost 17 per cent of its terrritory to the Armenians and one in 10 of its 7 million people have lost their homes. 'I wouldn't describe the Armenian operations as an invasion. It's more like armed tourism. The Azeri government is a shambles and can offer virtually no resistance,' said one Western diplomat close to the threadbare efforts to end the conflict.

Direct contacts have opened between Azerbaijan and the Nagorny Karabakh Armenians for a ceasefire, but few expect long-term peace. 'The Armenians have always lied to us,' said Azerbaijan's ambassador to Turkey, Mehmet Nevruzoglu. An abortive mission this month by the main peace-makers, the nine-country Minsk group mandated by the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe, condemned Armenian intransigence.

Western indifference to Muslim Azerbaijan was illustrated by Turkey's attempt to help its ethnic Azeri kin. Twenty-four hours after President Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Ciller placed calls to the leaders of Russia and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, none of the conversations had taken place.

Turkey wants a UN peace- keeping force with the possible inclusion of Turkish troops, and the new leader of Azerbaijan, Geidar Aliyev, asked for this to be debated in Baku's parliament yesterday. But neither side agrees where such a force should go. Nagorny Karabakh Armenians torpedoed the last Minsk group plan by rejecting conditions on territorial withdrawals. 'Azerbaijan wants the peace- keepers to be on the Armenian- Azeri border,' said one diplomat. 'But the Nagorny Karabakh Armenians have their own agenda and support from the Armenian diaspora. The odds are stacked against them in any international forum and the Azeris are weak, so they don't see why they shouldn't keep what they regard as theirs.'

Nagorny Karabakh was once home to 150,000 Armenians and 30,000 Azeris and constituted about 7 per cent of Azerbaijan. It is now held by Armenian forces, who have captured parts of Azerbaijan - Lachin, Kelbadjar and, on Friday, the town of Agdam, where Western diplomats said the homes of 50,000 were being burned.

Armenian forces could probably seize the town of Fizuli, which would link Nagorny Karabakh to the Iranian border and cut off a huge swathe of Azeri territory. Western diplomats thought the Azeris would get only verbal support, despite their potential oil wealth. Azerbaijan's image was dented by last month's coup against the democratically elected President, Abulfez Elchibey.