Afghan Fighters Joined Azeri-Armenian War in 1993

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Afghan Fighters Joined Azeri-Armenian War in 1993

By Daniel Sneider Christian Science Monitor November 16, 1993

Captured documents taken from battlefields in southwestern Azerbaijan provide the first hard evidence that Afghan troops hired by the Azerbaijan government were actively involved in recent fighting with Armenian forces.

Security authorities in this mountainous region, which is the stronghold of ethnic Armenian forces, showed the Chrisitan Science Monitor a collection of material including Islamic literature printed in Afghanistan, notebooks and charts on the organization of artillery units, unmailed personal letters addressed to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and an array of personal snapshots of the Afghan warriors taken in identifiable locations within Azerbaijan. Most of the documents were written in either Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, or Pashto, the language of the majority of Afghans.

Reports that Azerbaijan had hired a force of more than 1,000 Afghan mujahideen fighters surfaced in two Western newspapers in November 1993, citing diplomatic sources in the Azeri capital of Baku. Azerbaijan government officials subsequently denied those reports. But the material provided to the Monitor is the first concrete evidence obtained by a Western news organization verifying those initial reports.

The decision of the Azerbaijan government to involve Afghan mujahideen in its five-year undeclared war with the Armenians fighting for self-determination of Nagorno Karabagh marks a turning point in that conflict.

After long periods of fighting in which the advantage fluctuated between the two sides, the Armenians consolidated control of Karabagh in 1992. In quick succession in March 1993, Karabagh troops seized the crucial Kelbadjar corridor between Karabagh and Armenia and then began capturing key towns to the south and east of Karabagh. In all, Karabagh controls one quarter of the territory in Azerbaijan.

Armenian officials now warn that the introduction of Muslim Afghan fighters poses the danger of turning the conflict, between Christian Armenians and Muslim Turkic Azeris, into a religious war. It further intensifies the danger of broadening of the conflict to involve neighboring Iran and Turkey, provoking a reaction from Russia, which also borders this region. Azerbaijan and Armenia are both former Soviet republics.

"The Azeris want to turn this war into a religious one, which we haven't accepted from the beginning and which we won't accept," said Robert Kocharian, the head of the State Committee on Defense of Nagorno Karabagh and the de facto ruler of this enclave [Ed. note: Robert Kocharian was elected president of Armenia in early 1998]. Karabagh now claims its status as an independent republic.

"Involvement of new forces in this conflict will only make the situation more complex," echoed Armenian Republic President Levon Ter Petrosian, in an interview in his office in Yerevan [Ed. note: Levon Ter Petrosian served as president from 1991 until his resignation in early 1998]. "It creates the preconditions for internationalizing the conflict, which is neither desirable for us or for Azerbaijan, nor for the international community."

The decision of the government of President Heydar Aliyev to involve the Afghans is widely believed to reflect their desperation after a string of military defeats at Armenian hands.

In mid-August 1993, according to the Western newspaper reports, deputy Interior Minister Roshan Jivadov made a secret trip to Afghanistan. He met there with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan premier and head of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezb-I-Islamic faction, and reportedly made a deal. Western sources in Yerevan believe the fighters came from the Hektmatyar group itself.

Starting in September 1993, the Karabagh military began intercepting radio signals in Dari, according to Kamo Abrahamiam, the head of the National Security Department. Mr. Abrahamiam, a former Soviet paratrooper trained in the Dari language for service during the war in Afghanistan, said the intercepts indicated that Afghans were deployed in several separated locations.

Despite some evidence of the presence of Afghans, they were surprised when an attack was launched on October 21, 1993 on Armenian lines in the Jevrail region in southwest Azerbaijan, breaking a long cease-fire. "We were attacked by a battalion of about 300 Afghan soldiers," Abrahamiam says.

Within two days, on October 23, the Armenians mounted a counter offensive, rapidly driving the Afghans and their Azeri allies out of Azerbaijan territory, capturing the Jebrail, Fizuli, and Zangelan regions which border Iran. The Afghans, who Abrahamiam says were heavily armed with standard Soviet infantry weapons and fought with far greater discipline and ability than the Azeris, removed their dead from the battlefield. But in the town of Goradis, near the Iranian border, and in Zangelan, Armenians found documents in buildings that housed the Afghan troops.

Among the material laid out on a table in Abrahamiam's office were several religious pamphlets in Pashto and Dari, one of them marked as publication of the Scientific Islamic Society of Afghanistan. An interpreter accompanying this reporter who was also trained in Arabic and other oriental languages was able to verify these translations. Others bore the Afghan coat of arms.

One handwritten notebook contained a vocabulary list, with Azeri terms written down one side and Dari down the other. Another notebook contained an extensive manual on how to fire artillery weapons, with charts on how to compute trajectories. A neatly ruled chart listed various artillery weapons with their various capabilities such as range and weight.

A faded document bore the letterhead, in English and Pashto, of the Ministry of Education of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Handwritten in Russian on several pages presumably by Azeri authorities, there is a list for the mujahideen to register their personal weapons. About 100 typically Afghan (or Pakistani) names are present such as Ferhad Abdulrazak or Nizamuddin Inatullah, by no means of Azeri origin.

But the most convincing proof is a set of photos, mementos of the Afghan fighters, clothed in the characteristic garb, of their stay in Azerbaijan. In many of them, Russian-made cars with Azeri license tags are visible in the background. One was the type typically taken by professionals at Soviet tourist sites, with the inscription of a major northwestern Azeri city on the bottom-"Ganzha, 1993," it read.

A number of the photos appear to have been taken at the training camp of the former 104th Airborne Division of the Soviet Army near Ganzha. "I was trained there," says Abrahamiam. "I know this place very well. I crawled over every millimeter of it on my belly." In the photos he identifies an open-air cinema and a warehouse. But even without his identification, a parachute practice jump structure is visible in the background of one picture. with their various capabilities such as range and weight.

L> nglish and Pashto, of the Ministry of Education of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Handwritten in Russian on several pages presumably by Azeri authorities, there is a list for the mujahideen to register their personal weapons. About 100 typically Afghan (or Pakistani) names are present such as Ferhad Abdulrazak or Nizamuddin Inatullah, by no means of Azeri origin. But the most convincing proof is a set of photos, mementos of the Afghan fighters, clothed in the characteristic garb, of their stay in Azerbaijan. In many of them, Russian-made cars with Azeri license tags are visible in the background. One was the type typically taken by professionals at Soviet tourist sites, with the inscription of a major northwestern Azeri city on the bottom-"Ganzha, 1993," it read. A number of the photos appear to have been taken at the training camp of the former 104th Airborne Division of the Soviet Army near Ganzha. "I was trained there," says Abrahamiam. "I know this place very well. I crawled over every millimeter of it on my belly." In the photos he identifies an open-air cinema and a warehouse. But even without his identification, a parachute practice jump structure is visible in the background of one picture.