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Armenian irregulars, backed by heavy weapons, seized the Azeri-populated city of Khojaly as fighting accelerated across the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, local news agencies said yesterday.

Interfax said Azeri units were chased out of Khojaly after evacuating civilians toward the nearby city of Agdam, an Azeri stronghold just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote region in the Transcaucasus.

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Khojaly is the second most populous Azeri city in the enclave, inhabited predominantly by Armenians but administered since 1923 by Azerbaijan.

The fresh fighting threw into doubt prospects for a peace mission by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who had planned to tour the enclave. On Tuesday he met Azeri President Ayaz Mutalibov.

Iranian Radio, quoting what it called official sources, said a 25-hour cease-fire had been agreed between predominantly Christian Armenia and mostly Muslim Azerbaijan.

Both sides denied a deal had been struck.

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