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Civilians threatened as Azeris lose key town: Armenians drive towards Iranian border on eve of peace talks

MOSCOW - Armenian separatists took the key Azeri town of Dzhebrail, south of the disputed Nagorny Karabakh enclave, threatening to cut off thousands of civilians, Azeri authorities said yesterday.

The separatists took the town overnight, the Azeri defence ministry said, adding that a column of Armenian tanks was en route for the village of Goradiz in the direction of the Iranian border and about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Dzhebrail.

An Armenian commander said his forces had advanced to within less than a kilometre of the centre of Dzhebrail, where the Azeri forces were 'in total panic'. Armenian troops had also consolidated their hold on the Azeri town of Fizuli, another strategic cross-border target which was now completely surrounded, the commander said.

If both Dzhebrail and Fizuli fell to the separatists, some 250,000 Azeris living in the south-eastern border regions of Zangelan and Kubatly would effectively be cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan. Azeri forces launched a counter-offensive in the Kubatly region but were repulsed by Armenian troops, Azeri authorities said. Baku said the separatists had retaken the area in an attack from the Lachin corridor linking Armenia with Nagorny Karabakh.

The Dzhebrail attack preceded the implementation Wednesday evening of a new ceasefire accord, the Armenian commander said, adding that his troops 'have been ordered not to enter Dzhebrail or Fizuli'. In Stepanakert, the Armenian military leadership said the truce was holding apart from occasional gunfire. They confirmed their troops had completely surrounded Dzhebrail and Fizuli.

A fax in which Azerbaijan consented to the ceasefire agreement, was signed by Safar Abyev and Rasul Guliev, respectively Azerbaijan's interim Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. A second fax, signed by the acting President, Geidar Aliyev, instructed the two officials to undertake negotiations for a long- term settlement of the conflict.

Karen Baburian, the leader of the Nagorny Karabakh separatists, said his forces had 'received the order to cease all manoeuvres on the front line' following the ceasefire. The offensives mark the latest Armenian incursions into Azeri territory in defiance of international condemnation.

Under the ceasefire agreement, proposed by Azeri officials, both sides pledged 'to stop all offensive operations and to halt aerial and artillery bombardments'. The ceasefire accord covers an initial five-day period, during which both sides would agree to discuss a long-term peace accord.

The ceasefire agreement came hours after the Armenian defence ministry reported that two Azeri warplanes had bombed the south-eastern Armenian industrial town of Kafan, killing seven people and injuring about 30 in apparent retaliation for the Fizuli fighting.

Separatists in Nagorny Karabakh, which is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, have been fighting for independence from Muslim Azerbaijan since 1988 in a war that has left some 10,000 dead.

(Map omitted)