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Armenians Are Divided Over Talks On Hard-Won, Disputed Enclave


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TWO teenage girls search the shelves of the bookstore intently before selecting romance novels to bring to the cash register.

A perfectly ordinary scene, but here in the battered capital of war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh it is peculiar. The bookstore's doors opened on May 18 after countless months, emerging into life from a desperate siege, like the inhabitants of this mountainside city.

The windows of the bookstore are boarded up, long since blown out by artillery fire. But still, says shopkeeper Raya Shirvanian, "It feels a little like normal life."

A fitful peace has come to the streets of Stepanakert only since May 9 when the Armenian militia seized the stronghold of Shusha perched on the cliffs above this city. From there the Azerbaijan National Guard had pounded the Karabakh capital and surrounding villages with daily rocket barrages.

The Armenian forces control virtually all of Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, for the first time in four years of political and military struggle. Children play in the makeshift bomb-shelters where they had lived for months. Electricity and water flow again, and limited food supplies come across a land corridor opened to Armenia.

But Ms. Shirvanian is still afraid to sleep in her house. A large-scale Azeri offensive, backed by tanks, helicopter gunships, and jet fighters, was launched June 12, apparently catching the Armenians by surprise. Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on their foes but the Armenians admit to losing control of the Armenian-populated Shaumyan district north of the Karabakh border.

The fighting again dims hopes for peace talks which the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is trying to organize in two weeks in Minsk. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan accuses the Azeris of launching the attack to deliberately "torpedo" those talks. The Azeris issue their own charges of Armenian "aggression."


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