MOSCOW -- An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Azerbaijanis, forced to flee their homes by a massive Armenian offensive in southwestern Azerbaijan, are heading toward the Iranian border as the ethnic war in Nagorno-Karabakh widens into a full-scale international conflict.
Up to 2,000 Azerbaijani refugees already have crossed into Iran, and thousands of other people are streaming toward the border, reported Mahmoud Said, the U.N. representative in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.
So far, Iran has avoided interfering in the 5-year-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. But a sudden influx of refugees -- and possibly retreating Azerbaijani soldiers -- could destabilize the Iranian-Azerbaijani border and further complicate peace efforts, Russian and Western analysts said.
"Neither Iran nor we want to see these refugees cross the border, but this threat is quite real," said Rafael D. Guseinov, Azerbaijan's representative in Moscow.
"The Armenians are trying to drive refugees across the border on purpose, not only in order to gain more territory but also . . . to aggravate the situation in Azerbaijan," Mr. Guseinov charged.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, say that the areas under attack have been used to launch attacks against their villages and that their only goal is to demilitarize them.
Armenians now control about one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory -- a humiliating setback for the new Azerbaijani leadership that came to power in June promising to drive the Armenians out.
The war over Nagorno-Karabakh began after Armenian nationalists started demanding independence for Karabakh in 1988. The ensuing ethnic fighting has killed about 15,000 people and created nearly a million refugees on both sides.
The 100,000 Karabakh Armenians have long been seen as the underdog in their battle against 7 million Azerbaijanis, but since February the war has turned sharply in their favor. After several offensives, Armenians captured the last major Azerbaijani-controlled town in Karabakh June 27.
Then they began to drive deep into Azerbaijan proper, apparently aiming to create a defensible buffer zone around Nagorno-Karabakh. So far, the main targets have been cities and mountaintops from which the Azerbaijanis have lobbed shells into Karabakh.
On July 23, the Karabakh forces captured Agdam, an Azerbaijani city of 60,000. Fizuli, with a prewar population of 40,000 and a strategic location about 15 miles from the Iranian border, fell Monday. By Tuesday, Armenian forces controlled 50 villages in the Fizuli region, Azerbaijan's defense ministry said.
Nagorno-Karabakh Foreign Minister Arkady Gukasyan, in a telephone interview Saturday, said his forces control the strategic heights around several cities and could easily capture them but that commanders had been ordered not to enter the cities.
"We had to put an end to the constant bombardment of our capital, Stepanakert, from these towns, and we did," Mr. Gukasyan said.
The Karabakh forces are estimated at about 40,000 troops -- roughly one-third the size of the Azerbaijani army, but far better trained, disciplined and motivated.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan's Mr. Guseinov said the Karabakh units are stretched too thin to control the territory they have captured. Instead, he charged, they are simply driving Azerbaijani civilians out by plundering and burning villages.
Analysts said the Azerbaijani army is demoralized, rife with corruption and factionalized among units loyal to a dozen different regional warlords.