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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenia Sacks 'Out of Control' Defense Chief

YEREVAN, Armenia - The Armenian defense minister, Vazgan Manoukian, was dismissed Thursday for what one government minister described as being "out of control".

Manoukian backed a more militant approach to the struggle with Azerbaijan for control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh than the rest of the Armenian leadership, and his dismissal came just two days before the arrival of an international peace mediator in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

A senior Armenian government official said that Manoukian had been "acting out of control" and that "his dismissal is proof that Armenia is serious about the Karabakh peace process".

The chairman of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe group of mediators, Mario Rafaelli, is expected in the Azeri capital Baku on Friday and in Yerevan on Saturday. He is then due to visit Karabakh for the first time.

Manoukian is thought to have jointly planned - with the Karabakh Armenians- the offensive operations that Armenian forces have carried out in and around Karabakh this year.

Soldiers from the Armenian National Army, which Manoukian controls, reportedly have been fighting in Karabakh, and he himself has visited the front line on at least one occasion.

The Armenians have control of virtually all of the disputed territory - up from last summer when the Azeris held more than a third. The Armenians have also occupied the long strip of territory between Karabakh and Armenia proper. Thousands have died since this conflict began in 1988 - most in the last 18 months.

"There's a sense that Manoukian has done his job. Just about everyone in Armenia supported the armed struggle for Karabakh, but now that they have got Karabakh back, Manoukian's being axed as a sop to the peace process", said one foreign diplomat in Yerevan.

Manoukian was a prime minister of post-Soviet Armenia and is thought to harbor presidential ambitions. He had been defense minister since last autumn.

The Karabakh Armenians are now on the outskirts of the Azeri town of Agdam, which lies to the east of Karabakh, and they are not far from another Azeri town, Fizuli, which is southeast of the disputed territory.

Some of the military commanders and politicians in Karabakh are known to believe that Agdam and Fizuli - if captured - would be valuable bargaining chips. The dismissal of Manoukian, their closest ally in the Armenian government, could make them think again.

From the hills around Agdam - which before the conflict had a population of more than 100, 000 - columns of smoke rose from the plain. Some marked fires on the edge of Agdam and the Armenian forward positions. Outside the town cornfields were ablaze behind the Armenian lines - a futile attempt by the Azeri artillery gunners to hold up the Armenian offensive.

Armenian tanks and trucks rolled along the main road from Karabakh towards Agdam, seemingly impervious to Azeri artillery fire. An occasional shell or Grad missile landed in the fields on either side, but the road never took a direct hit.

Most Armenian soldiers maintained they had no orders to enter Agdam, but one officer said there had been a plan to take Agdam on July 5, but that "the politicians had said no". He presumably meant the political leaderships of both Karabakh and Armenia.

Armenia's foreign minister, Vahan Papazian, said in an interview: "I have received assurances from the Karabakh Armenian leadership that their forces will not enter Agdam". He added: "I think if the peace process begins, all territory outside Karabakh now occupied by Armenian fighters will be returned to the Azeris".