Reports: Azerbaijani Rebels Seize Major City, 40 Killed
MOSCOW (AP) _ Armed rebels led by a maverick military leader seized Azerbaijan’s second- largest city after heavy fighting that killed 40 people and wounded another 40, news agencies reported today.
The rebels also reportedly were holding three government officials hostage.
An Azerbaijani Embassy spokesman in Moscow confirmed that rebels held Gyandzha and its airport. Gyandzha, with a population of 80,000, is 195 miles west of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Residents in Baku, reached by telephone, said there was no sign of tension or any indication of a threat to the government. Baku’s population is about 1 million.
The independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan said the fighting began last Friday. It also said the unrest was spreading toward Yevlakh, a region east of Gyandzha, where leaflets have been distributed calling for an uprising.
The rebels are led by Surat Huseynov, a local military leader who was demoted by the Azerbaijani government last February after a string of military defeats against Armenian forces in the area.
The seizure of Gyandzha poses the most serious internal threat to date to the government of President Abulfaz Elcibey, who was elected a year ago.
Armenian victories in February also cost the defense minister his job, and created a confrontation between the defense ministry and the ruling Popular Front, an umbrella for smaller pro-government parties.
Former Defense Minster Rahim Gaziyev visited Gyandzha last week, Turan said, indicating he may be connected to the unrest.
The weakening Azerbaijani position in its war with Armenia over Nagorno- Karabakh and subsequent economic difficulties have stirred public dissatisfaction with Elcibey.
In a message of condolences to the families of Gyandzha’s victims, Elcibey said: ″The efforts of enemy forces to break down Azerbaijan’s stabilization process were partly successful, pitting brother against brother.″
The ITAR-Tass news agency said the rebels have held three government officials hostage since Friday, including general prosecutor Ikhtiar Shirinov and two aides of the interior minister.
The rebels were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Panakh Huseynov, Turan said.
An Azerbaijani embassy spokesman who refused to be identified said he had no comment about the hostages, but said Gyandzha was quiet this morning after a night of fighting.
A government delegation, including a Muslim leader, is in Gyandzha for negotiations with Huseynov, Turan said.
After his demotion in February, Huseynov continued to hold power over local army forces and remained influential in the region as head of a textiles factory.
ITAR-Tass said Huseynov told reporters Sunday night that the government was trying to disarm his group, calling it a ″crime.″
He demanded a special parliament session to discuss the situation.
Gyandzha is at the center of an animal-breeding, cotton-growing region surrounded by high mountains overlooking neighboring Armenia. Russian troops had been based in Gyandzha, but pulled out on May 25, the last Russian soldiers to leave Azerbaijan.
Government officials say Huseynov had wanted a larger share in the distribution of the Russian base.
Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Abkhazian separatists today continued to shell the besieged city of Sukhumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Abkhazian authorities said at least one civilian was killed and nine were wounded.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was in Sukhumi at the time of the attack, which began on Sunday and resumed today. He blamed the shelling on Russian and Abkhazian authorities intent on harming Russian-Georgian relations.
More than 1,000 people have been killed since Abkhazia, a former resort area in northwest Georgia between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, declared independence last July and Georgia sent in thousands of troops.
Separatist forces have managed to hold about a third of Abkhazia, which is slightly smaller than Connecticut.