* Tensions rise in Caucasus over axe killer's release
* Azerbaijan-Armenia war could trigger regional conflict
* New weapons hold potential for widespread destruction
* No solution in sight on Nagorno-Karabakh status
By Timothy Heritage and Francesco Guarascio
LINE OF CONTACT, Azerbaijan, Sept 11 A dusty
trench, interrupted every few metres by lookout posts and gun
positions, winds its way as far as the eye can see.
"Put your head above the trench and they'll shoot you," says
a young ethnic Armenian soldier, peering through a narrow slit
in a concrete watchtower at Azeri lines 400 metres away where he
says snipers lie in wait.
The bullets fly both ways. On the other side of the
minefields, Khosrov Shukurov's daughter was recently shot in the
arm. The 70-year-old Azeri farmer keeps his cows on leashes to
stop them straying beyond the wall built to protect his village.
Sporadic firefights have intensified along the front line
around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan
in the South Caucasus controlled by ethnic Armenians since a war
in the early 1990s that killed about 30,000 people.
Azerbaijan has stepped up threats to take the region back
and its decision to give a hero's welcome to a soldier convicted
of hacking an Armenian to death on a NATO course has highlighted
the risk of a war that could draw in Turkey, Russia and Iran.
When the ethnic Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh
declared independence as the Soviet Union collapsed, and took
over more Azeri territory outside the region than within it,
Christian Armenia avoided direct war with Muslim Azerbaijan.
It now says it would not stand aside if the enclave it
helped establish was attacked.
Both it and Azerbaijan have more powerful weapons than two
decades ago and if pipelines taking Azeri oil and gas to Europe
via Turkey or Armenia's nuclear power station were threatened,
war could spread.
Armenia has a collective security agreement with its
regional ally Russia, while Azerbaijan has one with Turkey,
itself a member of NATO for which an attack on one member state
is an attack on all 28.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of a "much
broader conflict" when she visited Armenia in June and NATO
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Friday he was
"deeply concerned" by the Azeri soldier's pardon last month.
Political and military analysts say war is not inevitable,
and that the potential for destruction and a regional war serve
as a deterrent. But they are increasingly discussing how a
conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan might play out.
The most likely trigger is seen as a particularly deadly
skirmish on the line of contact between Nagorno-Karabakh-held
territory and the rest of Azerbaijan or on the
Azerbaijan-Armenia border. Nine people died in clashes in June.
"At some moment the crossfire will not be limited to the use
of small weapons. One side will hit the other with heavy
weapons," said Rasim Musabayov, an independent member of
parliament in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku.
"Then you can see a scenario in which the other side
responds with air power and then it all goes from there."
Less likely would be a political decision to go to war -
despite Azerbaijan's threats to regain control of
Nagorno-Karabakh - or a pre-emptive strike by Armenia or
Nagorno-Karabakh if an attack by Azerbaijan seemed imminent.
If a conflict did break out, Azerbaijan would likely try to
besiege Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of about 160,000 people
linked to Armenia by a narrow land corridor, since the enclave's
troops dominate the high ground and have mined elsewhere.
"A key factor is the topography, the extent to which
Nagorno-Karabakh has created defences in depth. This could make
the lower land killing fields. Progress would come at a high
cost," said Wayne Merry, a former U.S diplomat and an expert on
the region at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.
The Azeris could also attack the towns of Jebrail and Fuzuli
to the south and southeast, outside the enclave before the
1991-94 war but part of the 20 percent of Azerbiajan under
ethnic Armenian control since.
"SPASMS OF MUTUAL DESTRUCTION"
Azerbaijan's annual defence spending is more than Armenia's
entire budget, but Armenia has warned of an "asymmetrical"
response to any attack, threatening what Merry called a "spasm
of mutual destruction" fuelled by bitterness from the last war.
Abbas Aliyev, 66, was forced out of Fuzuli as it was seized
by ethnic Armenian troops and settled with his wife and four
children in the cramped basement of an apartment bloc in Baku
where one toilet is shared by 16 families.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them
Azeris, who cannot return home until the conflict is resolved.
"I want to breathe the fresh air of my region again," he said.
Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh use similar words to
explain why they would not give the region up.
"I got all the paperwork I needed to go to the United States
but decided not to go. It's marvellous here. Look around you,
breathe the air," said Samvel Gabrielyan, an artist in
Stepanakert, a quiet city of nearly 57,000 in the mountains.
Smart new apartment blocs stand on the rubble of buildings
destroyed there during the war. A few still have bullet marks.
"We'd be ready to fight again if we had to. Otherwise what
did all those deaths in the last war mean?" Gabrielyan said.
Such passions, and a belief on both sides that they can win
a war, risk encouraging the politicians and military.
Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace in Washington, said a war now would be
much more destructive than the low-tech conflict of the 1990s.
"It would be much more bloody and become a full state-state
conflict with unpredictable consequences."
Obvious targets in Azerbaijan would be the
Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) natural gas pipeline and the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) crude oil pipeline. Both are in
northwest Azerbaijan, within range of Armenian forces, and have
a role in Europe's attempts to reduce its reliance on Russia for
A consortium of Western oil companies operates the Azeri,
Chirag and Guneshli oilfields in the Azeri sector of the Caspian
Sea, as well as Azerbaijan's large Shah Deniz gas field.
Led by British Petroleum and including Norway's
Statoil and two U.S. companies, Chevron and
ExxonMobil, it has plenty to lose if war breaks out.
Each side can hit the other's capital, and Armenia's,
Yerevan, is only 30 km (19 km) from its Metsamor nuclear power
plant. Northwest Azerbaijan contains a water reservoir and power
station as well as an international highway and railway.
"We think that if hostilities resume, they could not be
limited to a local or regional framework. I think they would
have a wider geographical spread," Bako Sahakyan, the
self-styled president of Nagorno-Karabakh, said in an interview.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in a gesture of
solidarity with ethnic kin in Azerbaijan during the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and rejects Armenia's insistence it
recognise the killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during
World War One as genocide.
Russia has a military base at Gyumri in northwest Armenia.
Neither, however, would want to rush into a war that would
damage their own, fragile relationship and Russia would not want
to upset its efforts to deepen ties with Baku.
Iran, another regional force, was neutral during the 1991-94
war and would be likely to remain so. But its relationship with
Azerbaijan has soured, especially since Baku started buying arms
from Israel, and it might be sucked into a conflict if it
allowed goods to keep flowing through its border with Armenia.
Efforts to find a political solution led by the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have had little
success, and political concessions are hard for leaders who
would risk losing power if they looked weak.
"Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Armenia. This is
how ordinary people see it," said Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan,
the Armenian Apostolic Church's senior official in the enclave,
which is still part of Azerbaijan under international law.
"We will do everything to save our land."
On the other side of the line of conflict, farmer Shukurov
will not move from the village of Ciragli, despite his
daughter's injury and the bullet holes riddling his house. "That
is what the Armenians want, but I will not give up," he said.
Diplomats and analysts say that if another war breaks out,
it is likely to end in stalemate. "The Azeris can't retake
Karabakh now. They are militarily incapable of doing it," said
Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.
"I don't think they could dislodge the Armenian forces from
the high ground. I think that's extremely difficult."
Yusif Agayev, an Azeri military expert and veteran of the
war, said there was no mood for a protracted fight.
"I think it would be a month or two, that is the amount of
time our armed forces could fight for. If it drags on longer
then it will become a war that society will have to participate
in, not just the army," he said. "I don't think the society of
my country is ready for war."