By Carey Goldberg
MOSCOW — As the camera panned from sere winter weeds to the frozen corpse of a small child in a red snowsuit, then to a cluster of five dead women with bloodied, discolored faces, the cameraman's own sobs made up the soundtrack.
The horror of the scene overpowered him, Azerbaijan Television cameraman Chingiz Mustafayev admitted Wednesday at a Moscow news conference called to bring world attention to the deaths at Khojaly, the Nagorno-Karabakh town stormed by Armenian militants last week.
"A square with a radius of 500 meters was just scattered with corpses," Mustafayev said, describing what officials in Azerbaijan have termed a massacre.
Azerbaijani spokesmen say that as many as 1,000 people were killed and 300 taken hostage on the night of Feb. 25 when Khojaly was taken; Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh say the Azerbaijani account "does not correspond to reality" and estimate that 80 Khojaly residents died.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Parliament's press center also says that Mustafayev's video was falsified; the corpses it shows were part of a general exchange of Armenian and Azerbaijani dead that occurred on Sunday, rather than in the aftermath of a single massacre, the press center says.
Whatever the exact death count, Khojaly clearly constitutes the latest tragedy in four years of internecine Azerbaijani-Armenian fighting over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The warfare had already left more than 1,000 dead, wrecked the local economy and turned thousands of villagers into homeless refugees.
At Wednesday's news conference presenting Mustafayev's videotape along with eyewitness accounts and official comments, Azerbaijani presidential adviser Rasim Agayev also accused the last regiment of former Soviet soldiers left in Nagorno-Karabakh of participating in the assault on Khojaly.
"This crime was committed by the 366th Regiment" of the Commonwealth of Independent States armed forces to frighten Azerbaijan out of its pursuit of a full-fledged national army, Agayev said. "This can be qualified as a war crime. This can be qualified as a genocide because only Azerbaijanis were killed."
But Ivan Skrylnik, the Commonwealth Defense Ministry spokesman, denied outright that the regiment, whose role is officially neutral, could have helped Armenian militants surround Khojaly and occupy it. He acknowledged, however, that deserters who have reportedly absconded with several armored vehicles could have participated in the battle.
The 366th, a motorized infantry regiment long caught helplessly between the two warring sides, was set to withdraw by land on Monday. But its departure has been blocked by fighting in the area. Its commanders announced Wednesday that its equipment would have to be airlifted to neighboring Georgia and that most of its personnel were already being flown out.
Khojaly residents are convinced the regiment helped in the town's capture because, they told reporters, they were surrounded on three sides by at least 40 armored vehicles; they insist that Armenian militants do not have nearly that number of armored vehicles.
The field of corpses that Mustafayev said he taped last Friday lies east of Khojaly, between the Armenian towns of Askeran and Nakhichevanik, on the escape route that Khojaly residents took toward the nearest Azerbaijani town, Agdam.
Oleg Aliev, a 40-year-old Khojaly bookkeeper who survived the assault, said a large group of people fleeing the fighting had just emerged from the forest into the field when at least two armored vehicles manned by Armenian fighters, apparently waiting in ambush, opened fire on them with machine guns. "They thought they had already reached a safe place," he said of his neighbors and relatives. "They were just a little way from Agdam. And then they were all shot."
Mustafayev said he had counted more than 100 bodies in the field. Many of the three dozen or so corpses shown in the tape were women and children, some with head wounds but others with no visible injuries. Much of their clothing was in disarray, as if they had been searched.
The cameraman said that a survivor had told him that militants seeking gold and money had put guns to the heads of those already wounded as they lay helplessly on the ground. They demanded their valuables and then shot them. That would explain the many point-blank head wounds, he said.
When Mustafayev returned to the site again Monday, he said he found two corpses with part of their scalps removed and one dead woman with one side of her face cut away. He speculated that the corpses had been mutilated to intimidate opposition fighters, or perhaps that soldiers brought back body parts to their commanders to show they had been actively killing people.
Commonwealth television carried a small fragment of the tape, commenting that "it's a horrifying picture" and that the residents of Khojaly, formerly a town of about 7,000, had met a "tragic fate."
Armenian officials have insisted that Khojaly and the surrounding areas had largely been cleared of civilians. They said the town was inhabited mainly by Azerbaijani fighters who used the few remaining local residents as human shields while employing the town as a base to rain down shells on the Armenian-populated capital of Stepanakert; since Khojaly was taken, they say, the shelling of Stepanakert has halted.
Reacting to the escalating fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin dispatched special mediators to the region to try once again to break the four-year cycle of war in the disputed enclave.