Business as usual as rebels threaten Azeri capital: The army will not fight, the MPs have given in. Andrew Higgins sees a strange civil war in Baku

ON THE second floor of the Azeri parliament building, half-a-dozen soldiers sprawled on a sofa by the window, two others played chess and another, the only one with a hint of martial intent, languidly poked his gun barrel with a rod. He could just as easily have been picking his teeth.

And so, with rebel forces grouped just outside Baku, their armoured personnel carriers ready for the final push, the Azeri national army yesterday prepared to defend what, in the usual course of such events, would be a prime target. The current crisis is far from usual. 'It is a very strange civil war,' said Her Majesty's representative in Baku, a city of fabulous potential wealth from oil, stunning views of the Caspian Sea and cursed by a desperate political poverty.

The arrival of the rebels, loyal to a cashiered officer and self-made millionaire, on the outskirts of the capital has caused barely a ripple of concern among ordinary people. One column is less than 10 miles from the city centre, and a second yesterday moved to a point about 15 miles away. None the less, there are still concerts at the magnificent 19th-century music hall, the streets are jammed with traffic, and hotels are crowded with businessmen fretting over which official to bribe. The politicians, though, are in a blind panic: which way to jump?

The President, Abulfaz Elchibey, a dissident in Soviet times who was elected last summer with nearly 60 per cent of the vote, has fled the capital, though he insists that he will continue to rule the country from the mountain village where he has taken refuge. The posts of prime minister, defence minister, interior minister and national security minister are all vacant.

Filling the vacuum is one of the wiliest of politicians in the whole of the former Soviet Union - the former Politburo member, KGB general and Azeri Communist Party first secretary, Geidar Aliyev. At an emergency session of parliament yesterday, he rammed through a resolution appealing for Mr Elchibey to return. Few expect him to do so, least of all Mr Aliyev who has already taken over many of the President's duties, and is widely believed to want the title. He also pushed through a second motion praising the patriotic fervour of the rebel leader, Suret Guseinov.

Mr Guseinov, who originally declared his support for Mr Aliyev, may turn out to be more of a wild card than the veteran Communist realised. Yesterday, speaking in Azerbaijan's second city of Gyandzha, which he captured earlier this month, the rebel leader claimed supreme power in the republic. 'There is a power vacuum,' he said. 'The reality of the situation today does not allow the chairman of the Supreme Soviet (the position Mr Aliyev holds) to take all authority on himself. And so I am obliged to take authority on myself.'

During the parliamentary debate, MPs marched to the podium one by one to explain why they could not stop the rebel militia from marching into the centre of Baku. 'They have enough power to enter the city right now. Our position is very difficult. We think this confrontation must be settled by political means,' said Ravshan Javadov, the acting interior minister, dressed for the occasion in camouflage fatigues.

He left no doubt about the settlement he had in mind, saying that 90 per cent of the population supported Mr Guseinov. 'Tomorrow, it will be too late,' he warned.

For a moment parliament, some 40 middle-aged men in expensive suits, thought it was already too late. A deep grumble could be heard outside as half the lights suddenly went out in the hall. The noise turned out to be only thunder and the dim lights due to a faulty fuse.

If President Elchibey was watching the televised debate from his refuge in Nakhichevan, near the Iranian border, he will have been particularly unnerved by the speech, the only one in Russian instead of Azeri, by the acting defence minister, General Safar Abiyev: 'We have decided we will not use force against our own people.' The Azeri army, he said, would 'not interfere in internal matters'.

(Photograph omitted)