April 15, 2024

Soviet troops told to shoot if needed to quell violence

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Jan 18, 1990

MOSCOW (AP) – The Kremlin authorized the thousands of soldiers it sent to the Caucasus to open fire if necessary yesterday on Armenians and Azerbaijanis fighting in the hills near the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Thousands of Armenian refugees poured from the southern republic of Azerbaijan, many beaten or chased from their homes by angry mobs. Some blamed the attacks on Azerbaijanis who earlier fled ethnic violence in Armenia.

The death toll rose to 58, mostly Armenians, and injured to 169 in five days of civil warfare, an Interior Ministry official said.

The violence erupted Saturday with anti-Armenian riots in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Fighting rapidly spread to Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas of Azerbaijan, with the belligerents using helicopters, armored vehicles, machine guns and other arms seized from government arsenals or offered by compatriots.

It was the worst fighting between mainly Moslem Azerbaijanis and mostly Christian Armenians since their decades-old feud over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted in violence two years ago. The enclave, populated mainly by Armenians, has been ruled by Azerbaijan since 1923 and the current troubles were sparked by its demand in February 1988 to be annexed by Armenia. The Kremlin has empowered local officials to ban demonstrations and strikes, impose curfews, censor news, media, confiscate weapons, disband unofficial organizations and detain people for up to 30 days. Interior Ministry officials said they could not recall such measures being imposed since World War II.

Foreign reporters have been barred from the region.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev sent 11,000 army and internal security troops to the southern region Tuesday, but they have been slowed by Azerbaijani who erected barricades on roads and at a military airfield.

Gorbachev’s decision to send troops to control violent fighting in parts of Azerbaijan was applauded in random interviews with a cross-section of Soviet citizens- from around the country who were interviewed at a central airport shuttle bus station in Moscow.

“With such violence and so many deaths, I don’t think he had any choice,” said Nina F. Kozlova. a factory worker from Vitebsk in eastern Byelorussia.

“It was not peaceful and quiet, with people just demonstrating, and suddenly troops are sent. They say it is practically a civil war down there. Gorbachev had a responsibility to save lives.”

In Armenia, residents broke into police stations and other buildings seeking weapons, Seleznyov said. About 50,000 people attended a rally in the Armenian capital Yerevan to hear reports about the fighting, said Armenian activist Karen Shakhbazyan.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

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