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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Rebels Vow to Return to Karabakh War

MARDAKERT, Azerbaijan - Rebel troops blockading the Azeri capital Baku have announced that they are returning to the battle front in Nagorno-Karabakh, but that it is too late to save the last Azeri-held town in the disputed enclave from falling into Armenian hands.

Armenian forces captured Mardakert on Sunday, taking advantage of the political turmoil within Azerbaijan, where rebel troops had marched on the capital and forced the country's first democratically elected president, Albufaz Elchibey, to flee.

After holding talks in Baku with acting President Geidar Aliyev, the rebel Azeri army commander, Suret Huseinov, said he would reincorporate his men into the national army and send them to the Karabakh front line.

"It is essential to unite to ensure the liberation of the occupied lands", he said in a statement Sunday. According to Colonel Kurban Kurbanov of the Azeri army, Mardakert fell around midday Sunday.

Before this conflict began, Mardakert in northeastern Nagorno-Karabakh had a mixed Azeri and Armenian population of 20, 000. It has been on the front line for nearly four months and most Azeri civilians had already left.

But dozens of trucks carrying families and household possessions could be seen leaving Mardakert on Sunday afternoon.

Azeri soldiers retreating from the town wandered aimlessly, alone or in small groups. Others lay on their backs by the side of the road exhausted. One tank commander, a veteran of the Soviet Army, had tears in his eyes: "I don't care who our president is", he said bitterly, "I just want someone to stop this senseless war".

Six kilometers away were spirals of smoke - evidence of the battle for Mardakert, which began early Saturday morning. An occasional shell landed nearby Sunday, but otherwise it was quiet, the Azeri withdrawal complete. Kurbanov said the Armenians had managed to encircle the town, making access impossible.

The Azeris have been on the defensive since February. The Armenians now control most of Karabakh except for a few tiny villages in the south. They also control a huge strip of Azeri territory between Karabakh and the Armenian republic.

The Karabakh Armenians signed an internationally brokered peace plan two weeks ago, but they have continued to push forward, taking full advantage of the current political crisis in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev, the former head of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, returned to Baku shortly after the rebellion began and appears to have reached an agreement with Huseinov. Some observers in the Azeri capital believe the rebel advance on Baku may have been the result of collusion between Aliyev and Huseinov, designed to push President Elchibey from power.

"It looks increasingly like there was a deal", said Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who has written a book about Azerbaijan's first year of post-Soviet independence.

"The big question now is do Huseinov and Aliyev have some sort of Russian support - in other words hardliners - and does that mean we're now going to see a turnaround in Azeri fortunes in Karabakh? " he added. Both Aliyev and Huseinov have publicly denied any Russian backing.

Returning from Mardakert, several Grad missile launch trucks and other vehicles with Russian flags painted on their sides were heading for the front. It was not clear whether these were Huseinov's promised reinforcements, old Russian military vehicles or whether they were really Russian.

One Azeri soldier said: "Yes, they are Russians - we pay and they help".

The last Russian troops in Azerbaijan pulled out of Gyandzha without warning on May 24. Huseinov's insurrection began in Gyandzha on June 4, leading some foreign diplomats in Baku to suspect that the Russians left the rebels some weapons.