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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenians Capture Key Area in Azerbaijan

IN THE MURAV MOUNTAINS, Azerbaijan -- Armenian forces have captured a part of Azerbaijan larger than the American state of Rhode Island and on Monday set their sights on a key southern town in a serious escalation of the former Soviet Union's worst regional conflict.

The fast-moving Armenian offensive has overrun the strip of land -- about 4, 000 square kilometers -- that separates the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Armenian forces now control about 10 percent of Azeri territory.

Reuters reported Azeri officials as saying Monday that they had repulsed a major Armenian attack on the town of Fizuli, about 25 kilometers from the Iranian border.

Fizuli is a transport hub for the part of Azerbaijan that runs to the south and southwest of Nagorno-Karabakh -- a largely Armenian populated enclave inside Azerbaijan - and its capture would effectively complete the process of joining Karabakh to Armenia.

Several hundred people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, which began late last week, leading the Azeri president, Abulfaz Elchibey, to declare a state of emergency and to appeal for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Thousands of Azeris and Kurds were fleeing the Kelbadzhar region of Karabakh over the weekend.

They came across the Murav mountains north of Kelbadzhar by car, by truck and on foot. Some had managed to load their possessions into trucks. Some had tied a few belongings on to the back of a donkey. Others had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Children stumbled blindly behind their parents. For many it had been a hike of two or three days to get over the mountains on a road that climbs to nearly 4, 000 meters.

Cars and trucks struggled up the northern slopes to reach those coming on foot. In places visibility was down to a few meters because of thick fog. The way was often blocked by livestock as thousands of sheep, goats and cows were herded painfully down the mountainside as men fired their Kalashnikovs into the air to keep the exhausted animals moving.

One image in particular stuck in the mind -- a woman clutching a tiny black lamb. On her face were no tears or panic, just sheer exhaustion.

"I've left my children behind", she said, "I had no time to find them".

Some spoke of Armenian Grad missiles and heavy artillery landing in Kelbadzhar or on the escape road. Others from villages around the town said Armenian soldiers had killed women and children.

These are familiar accusations in the post-Soviet Caucasus, reminiscent of a massacre of hundreds of Azeri civilians by Armenian fighters at the village of Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh a year ago.

Between 40, 000 and 60, 000 people lived in the Kelbadzhar region of Azerbaijan. Most of those have escaped but up to 5, 000 are thought to be trapped behind Armenian lines.

For any men left behind the prospects are bleak. This is a war in which prisoners are rarely taken.

The most obvious reason for the Armenian offensive into Kelbadzhar is that it makes the job of supplying Northern Karabakh with food, fuel, soldiers and weapons considerably

easier. The road from the Armenian capital Yerevan is now about 200 kilometers shorter than via the narrow Lachin corridor that the Armenians forced open last May.

The Armenian troops took Kelbadzhar with surprising ease. The advantage was overwhelmingly with the Azeri defenders in the hills that surround the town, although low morale and military incompetence among Azeri troops appeared to have helped the attackers.

Azeris fleeing the scene said the Armenian forces had been helped by Russian troops and material, although no evidence was offered.

As the loss of Kelbadzhar sinks into the Azeri psyche, calls for Eichibey's resignation are likely to increase.

But the annexation of so much territory by the Armenians not only threatens the political stability of Azerbaijan, it also raises the prospects of a regional war that could drag in Turkey.

Turkey imposed an embargo on foreign aid to Armenia in response to the Armenian offensive last Friday and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said that his country was "running out of patience".

Neighboring Iran also urged Armenia on Monday to pull its troops out of Azerbaijan and called for peace talks.