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Pipeline Blasted Again, Leaving Armenia Dark and Freezing

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW

A gas pipeline supplying the only fuel to Armenia exploded again Thursday, forcing the besieged republic to shiver through a fierce snowstorm without heat or light.

The Armenian government said the 4 a.m. blast tore a 6-foot gap in the newly repaired pipeline in the same mountainous region of neighboring Georgia where the pipe blew up Jan. 23. Saboteurs trying to tighten a wartime blockade of Armenia were suspected in both acts.

Reacting to the first incident, Armenian forces backed by warplanes and heavy artillery launched a major offensive last Friday in their undeclared war against Azerbaijan, seizing 11 settlements in the disputed mountain enclave of Nagorno Karabakh.

Azerbaijan, which claimed to have recaptured at least three settlements in a counterattack, accused Armenians of planting a bomb that crippled one of its rail lines Monday. Armenia in turn blamed Azerbaijaini shelling for killing nine civilians Wednesday, the latest of about 2,500 deaths in five years of bloodshed.

Fighting between the former Soviet republics has plunged Armenia's 3.4 million people into three straight winters of miserable fuel shortages. In this harshest of winters, schools are closed, hospitals and maternity wards are without heat, bread is rationed and prices are soaring. Forests and city parks are being stripped bare for firewood.

In Yerevan, the capital, where feeble gas pressure had returned to homes just two days ago and electricity was back on for an hour or two a day, people woke up in 10-degree cold Thursday with neither. The city's alreadycrippled subway trains shut down completely, as did electrically pumped water supplies and most telephones.

"There's no electricity; we're back to the same old story," said Gassia Apkarian, director of the Armenian Assembly of America, reached by telephone in Yerevan. "It's depressing. ... What people are saying is that this is going to take three days to fix. But what guarantee do we have that they're not going to do it again?"

The pipeline blew up both times in Marneul, a Georgian region inhabited mostly by immigrants from Azerbaijan. Police there arrested three Azerbaijanis for the first bombing but said that they had no information on the second. Armenian officials said Thursday's explosion blew away a segment of pipe installed Jan. 31 as a temporary replacement for the line damaged earlier.

Mobile engineering crews from Armenia have now been stationed permanently in Georgia, on alert to go repair the pipeline at short notice.

Armenia, a predominantly Christian nation surrounded by hostile or indifferent neighbors, imports 95 percent of its fuel. Until a year and a half ago, most of it arrived through Azerbaijan. Then Azerbaijan, in a wartime act, shut down a gas pipeline on its territory.

That forced Armenia to rely exclusively on Russian gas piped through Georgia, supplies increasingly threatened by civil war and banditry in that country. Armenia's other neighbors are Turkey, a historic enemy, and Iran, a Muslim ally of Azerbaijan.

In telephone interviews from Yerevan Thursday night, many Armenians expressed stoicism in the face of the latest blackout. Some older people said not even World War II was so hard on them.

"The situation is very grave," said Nina Khachatryan, 66, an educator at a teacher training institute, who said she spends most of her earnings on candles and wood. "I hope for the spring. If the government does not take care of us, let nature do it. Getting closer to spring I get more optimistic."