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A VICIOUS WAR TO THE DEATH BETWEEN AZERIS, ARMENIANS HAS BEEN LARGELY IGNORED

Few Americans can locate it on a map, but this tiny enclave in the Transcaucasus mountains is the locus of Europe's longest war, one largely ignored in the face of the daily drama in Bosnia.

But this dangerous ethnic conflict has toppled half a dozen governments, sucked in a host of unlikely outside forces -- from American soldiers of fortune to Islamic holy warriors -- and claimed an estimated 20,000 lives over the past five years.

Analysts and diplomats fear the international community's failure to stop the Serbs in Bosnia means no Western government would dare involve itself in a place even farther from the world's eye.

"Bosnia has just about demonstrated that you can do anything you want with impunity and the international community will simply throw up its hands and say, 'Oh, horror!' " said Elizabeth Fuller, the Caucasus analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by telephone from Munich, Germany.

Even Russia, the most powerful player in the region, has been unable to rein in the warring parties.

Both sides see this war as do-or-die; victory is survival, defeat extinction. For this reason, the war in Karabakh is one of hyperbole, vicious accusations and, above all, intense hatred.

"Either we are forced to our knee . . . or we find ways to protect our own lives and the lives of our children," said Georgy Petrossian, deputy head of the Karabakh parliament.

A case in point is the latest offensive, which began on April 11.

Although it is unclear which side struck first, few dispute that when the Armenians attacked, they did so with an aggressiveness that has given their outmanned forces the upper hand during the past year and a half.

Western diplomats in Azerbaijan say several hundred Azeri soldiers have died in just over a week of blitz warfare.

Although the Yerevan government denies mainland Armenian units are taking part in the offensive -- insisting that the only Armenian soldiers fighting alongside the Karabakh defense forces are volunteers -- evidence suggests otherwise.

Recently, for instance, five busloads of well-armed Armenian troops interviewed in the town of Masisskii, about 10 miles south of Yerevan, confirmed independently that they were being sent to the town of Khoradis, one of the last regions in southwest Azerbaijan under Azeri control.

The soldiers, who said they would provide support to the Karabakh forces, said they had been part of an army call-up which began earlier last month.

"God gave us the right to stand on this land," said one soldier, kissing a silver cross around his neck.

"We're going to fight," chipped in another.

Meanwhile, Karabakh leaders deny their troops are looking again to strike outside the enclave's borders. But diplomats fear the Armenian forces are headed north to the town of Yevlakh, a major nexus through which Azerbaijan receives food, oil and supplies. From Yevlakh, it is only a short distance to Gyandzha, Azerbaijan's second city.

With Armenian forces already controlling 25 percent of Azeri territory, many believe the capture of Yevlakh could be the final blow for Azerbaijan, toppling the current government of Heydar Aliev and further destabilizing the rickety country.

Aliev has sought outside help. Last fall, he hired 1,500 Afghan mujahedeen, who battled the Soviet Red Army for 10 years. Other reports say the Baku government has enlisted the services of Turkish and Iranian military advisers.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, where Western oil companies have already invested an estimated $400 million, also is attracting the attention of some more unlikely sponsors. As of last month, diplomats said three American military instructors remained near Baku, the Azeri capital. They were the last remaining members of a larger group of American trainers reportedly hired by the Azeri government in August 1992 to prop up its sagging army.

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