Defeated Azerbaijani Troops Retreat from Foothold in Nagorno- Karabakh
AGDAM, Azerbaijan (AP) _ Armenian troops advanced on this strategic Azerbaijani city Tuesday after capturing all but a few villages in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Both sides reported Armenian assaults in the strip of land separating the two former Soviet republics, and spoke of an Armenian push toward Agdam, which has come under shelling for days.
Azerbaijani forces have been forced to flee nine miles north to Tartar, in Azerbaijan proper, after losing Mardakert, Azerbaijan’s last foothold in Nagorno-Karabakh, on Sunday.
Trucks loaded with tired refugees, mattresses and furniture also were fleeing Agdam on Tuesday. The only road out of the city was lined with damaged military equipment, refugees, sheep and chickens.
The Azerbaijani retreat, which follows the collapse of the government in Baku, marks a milestone in the five-year war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of mostly ethnic Armenians who want to separate from Azerbaijan. Thousands have been killed in the fighting.
Azerbaijan’s armed forces have been virtually paralyzed by the rebellion of a leading officer earlier this month and subsequent political squabbling. Rebel leader Surat Huseynov has promised to send men and weapons to the fighting zone but not much has appeared at the front.
By Tuesday morning, Armenian troops had seized most of the villages near Agdam.
″There is a real threat that we will lose Agdam,″ a spokesman for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, Lt. Dargakhly Vagif, said in Baku.
In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Marsel Petrosian, a Nagorno-Karabakh spokesman, said Armenian forces were about a mile from Agdam, which is 17 miles south of Mardakert and two miles east of the Nagorno-Karabakh border.
Armenian troops, reinforced by at least 20 tanks and other armored vehicles, had cut off the road between Agdam and Mardakert, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Vagif also said Armenian forces have captured two strategic heights overlooking Bashkend, an Armenian town northwest of Nagorno-Karabakh that lies inside Azerbaijan. He said seven Azerbaijani soldiers died in the fighting around Bashkend.
″We are surrounded. Armenian artillery is in the mountains and there are snipers down the road,″ said Burhan Mamedov, an Azerbaijani soldier stationed on the road to Mardakert.
Fleeing Azerbaijani soldiers left behind many of their dead and wounded, along with artillery that had helped them defend Mardakert from sporadic Armenian attacks since its recapture last summer.
On the main road out of Agdam, Sehran Garibova and her family of 10 shared a shady spot with two other families that had fled the village of Boyahmedli. Mrs. Garibova and her family were leaving to join some 100 families camping under trees along a road north of Agdam. They brought with them kitchen utensils, bedding, sheep and chickens.
″We are getting no help. Our house has burnt down in Boyahmedli. I saw it from a mountaintop,″ she said.
In the past two weeks, about 30,000 people have left the Agdam region to outdoor camps or to stay with relatives, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Fighting this month in the Agdam and Mardakert regions is the heaviest of the war since February, when Azerbaijan lost 14 villages north of Mardakert. An informal ceasefire had largely held since April.