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Azeri Nationalists Promise Election, Renewed Battle Over Karabakh

AZERI nationalists who have seized power in this Transcaucasian republic are struggling to stabilize a chaotic domestic political situation, while waging a war with neighboring Armenia.

The nationalist Popular Front on Friday ousted President Ayaz Mutalibov in a relatively bloodless revolt. Over the weekend, the Front moved to secure its hold over the hard-line government, appointing its senior members to key posts in the Interior Ministry, the National Security Ministry, and the republican television center. The new leaders say their goal is to establish democracy. They say the June 7 elections will be held as planned.

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"We must have a democracy here because we need a parliament that has the trust of the people so it can act," says Oktoi Gasimov, a Front spokesman.

Only two days after the revolt, life in Baku appeared to be returning to normal. All the tanks that had moved into Baku Friday had withdrawn by Sunday. Armed men guarded several buildings,including the parliament and National Front headquarters.

Despite a veneer of calm, Mr. Gasimov says the situation in Baku remains unsettled. He notes an incident on Saturday night when a group of Mutalibov supporters opened fire with automatic weapons on the Popular Front headquarters. No one was injured but seven people were detained, he says.

Of greater concern to the republic's new leaders is the deteriorating situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting for control.

Armenia has gained the upper hand in the fighting, and the domestic political crisis has further weakened Azerbaijan's ability to fight. Armenian forces kept up the pressure over the weekend, capturing several villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri Defense Ministry officials said, adding that the strategic town of Lachin, near Armenian border, has been completely surrounded by Armenian forces.

The Baku crisis developed Thursday evening when the republic's parliament voted to restore President Mutalibov, the country's former Communist boss, to power, ending the interim presidency of Yagub Mamedov. Mutalibov had been removed from office on March 6 after Azeri fighters suffered a disastrous defeat to Armenian forces in the battle for Khojaly, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mutalibov's return was facilitated by another Azeri battlefield defeat last week at Shusha, the last Azeri-controlled stronghold in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Upon his restoration to the presidency, Mutalibov tried quickly to cement his rule. He introduced a two-month state of emergency in Baku, banning outdoor meetings and strikes, while restricting the freedom of political parties and the press. He also announced the cancellation of the presidential elections scheduled for June 7. Public opinion polls had favored Popular Front leader Abdulfez Elchibey in the vote.

The Popular Front, which enjoyed considerable support among the population, immediately denounced Mutalibov's actions as "an unconstitutional coup," and began a campaign of civil disobedience. Both sides armed themselves and reinforced their positions with armored vehicles.

The conflict reached a head Friday night when a Popular Front-led mob attacked the Azeri parliament building. A fierce gun battle briefly ensued before Popular Front forces gained control of the building. Later that night the Popular Front declared it was in control of the country, having seized such strategic points as the airport, television center, and presidential offices. At least one person was killed and three wounded in the clashes, according to the Azeri news agency Turan.

Mutalibov hasn't been seen since the storming of parliament, but Front officials say he no longer poses a threat. The Popular Front had been bitterly opposed to Mutalibov's rule since he came to power in January 1990. At that time, the Front appeared on the verge of taking power from the then-entrenched Communist Party, until the Soviet Army intervened on the party's behalf, ruthlessly crushing the nationalists.

In a televised address Friday night, senior Front leader Isa Gambarov said the toppling of Mutalibov paved the way for an Azeri offensive to regain lost territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. An estimated 2,000 people have been killed during four years of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous territory is inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians, but has been under the political control of Azerbaijan since 1923.

With the capture of Shusha, Armenian forces gained complete control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Fighting in recent days has been raging along the Armenian-Azeri border. Azerbaijan says Armenia is trying to open a corridor through Azeri territory in order to supply Karabakh by ground. Armenia denies the allegations. Currently, Armenia supplies its forces fighting in the mountainous enclave by plane and helicopter.

Until now, the Commonwealth of Independent States has been unable to stop the fighting. The UN has announced plans to send a fact-finding mission but no date has been set. UN special envoy Cyrus Vance in March advised against sending in peacekeeping troops after a visit to the area.

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