Refugees flee from Azeris' key town

AGDAM - Demoralised Azeri soldiers said yesterday that the fall of Agdam to Armenian forces was imminent, while a stream of refugees and young men of fighting age poured out of the Azeri town.

'Have a good look round. The Armenians will be here in two days,' said Shahmar Alisher, a soldier and one of the reinforcements drafted in to shore up defences.

'They are all fleeing. They are all afraid to fight,' he said as shelling from Armenian forces at the gateways continued throughout the day across the fast-emptying town.

The hopeless mood of the last defenders of Agdam, once a bustling town of 150,000 people, confirmed the impression that Azerbaijan, its new leaders unable to control the fast-moving situation on the battlefield, stood on the threshhold of another morale-sapping defeat.

A lone voice of defiance came from Agdam's new military commander, Eldar Aliyev, handed the unenviable task of holding the town by the new Prime Minister, Suret Guseinov. 'Our boys will break through Armenian lines. We have armed helicopters and enough tanks. We are not afraid of death,' Mr Aliyev said.

Agdam, a valley town near the eastern frontier of the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh and inside Azerbaijan proper, is regarded by Azeri officials as an important defensive position. Its fall would mark a significant milestone on the road east to the capital, Baku.

A thick pall of smoke rose from the direction of the village of Shelli to the south, one of three to fall yesterday to Armenians who now surround Agdam from the south, west and north.

Two other villages, Kasimli and Polatli, situated across vineyards to the west and east, were in flames. Beyond rows of lifeless farmhouses, smoke billowed from a dozen other villages.

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