Rebels move into capital of Azerbaijan: Fighters come face to face with Western oilmen in Baku's corridors of power

A FLEETING but possibly historic encounter took place yesterday in the corridor of the old Intourist hotel, a Soviet-era hostelry facing Baku's splendid bay.

It brought together Tim Hartnett, the Texan manager of Amoco Caspian Sea Petroleum Company, and four young men in soiled combat fatigues, dirty boots and with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders. They met by accident. All the same, it was the first known rendezvous between the two forces that, more than chattering politicians, will decide the faith of Azerbaijan - oil and guns.

The young men introduced themselves as rebels, part of the 3,000-5,000 strong force that, in the space of a week, has marched across Azerbaijan, driven elected President Abulfaz Elchibey from the capital and gutted his government of authority. Yesterday they moved into the centre of Baku, not to conquer - at least not yet - but to forage for beer.

The Amoco man thought it wise to oblige. 'They took a few cans and left,' Mr Hartnett said. Local precedent recommends politeness to young men with guns. 'I've been here for two years and have already seen four different governments,' the Texan added.

The rebels looking for beer might well be the first wave of the next one. They arrived from Azerbaijan's second city, Gyandzha, where their leader, Suret Guseinov, a 35-year-old millionnaire warlord and focus of a burgeoning personality cult, negotiates with emissaries from Baku. It was in Gyandzha that his mutiny took on a messianic passion on 4 June when Mr Elchibey ordered a punitive attack in which more than 70 people died.

With most of Azerbaijan's troops tied up fighting Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh, or trying to recover land lost in April, the rebels had little trouble advancing to Baku. They reached the outskirts early this week in two separate columns and were supposed to have stayed put there while Azerbaijan's Brezhnev-era baron, Geidar Aliyev, politically resurrected at the age of 70 and elevated to the post of parliament

ary chairman, tried to negotiate a settlement.

In effect, though, the centre of the city has already fallen. The battle, entirely peaceful so far, took place at the hotel front desk. Across the city, rebels have been not so much conquering as checking in. They began drifting in at the beginning of the week, but until yesterday without their guns and camouflage fatigues. Now only their armoured personnel carriers get left behind at their encampments in the suburbs.

In the second-floor restaurant of the old Intourist hotel a dozen rebels, rifles in hand, demanded a meal of fried chicken and rice. The manager, anxious to please but also anxious about who might be running the country in a few days' time, asked them to eat in the kitchen instead of the main dining room. They agreed.

Baku is the prize Mr Guseinov must now decide whether to seize or merely infiltrate for dinner and refreshments. The parliament is here, so are the ministries - the important ones all without ministers at the moment - and so is the oil and the foreigners offering tens of millions of dollars to get at it.

Baku has been a big oil town since the turn of the century. The Rothschilds came, so too did the Nobels - not the gunpowder-maker who founded the prizes, but relatives in oil. The battle of Stalingrad, arguably the point at which Hitler lost the war, was ultimately all about who should control the Baku oilfields.

A more peaceful but just as prolonged struggle now rages between the state oil company and Western outfits such as Amoco and BP. A contract was supposed to be signed next week in London where President Elchibey was to have made a state visit. The invitation still stands. But he is unlikely to make the trip.

His supporters in the Popular Front, a deeply nationalistic group with dreams of a greater Turkey and fears of Russian perfidy, accused Moscow of orchestrating the whole rebellion in order to keep BP, Amoco and the others from Baku's oil. And as evidence they point to the return of Mr Aliyev, a zealous guardian of Russia's interests during his 13-year tenure as party secretary.

Mr Aliyev himself, though, seems keen to woo the Western oil men. Asked yesterday who would sign a contract if the President was not available, he said: 'Don't worry, we'll find someone to sign it.'

Whether he can find a solution to the struggle for power seems less certain. He has set himself up as an arbiter, some suspect as the next president of Azerbaijan. Though a proven master of political intrigue, who sat on the Politburo in Moscow until Mikhail Gorbachev dumped him in 1987, Mr Aliyev, like Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, has found post-Soviet politics difficult to control.

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