Russia Defends Selling Arms

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's prime minister on Saturday defended Moscow's policy of selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose military forces have faced off in a sharp escalation of fighting around separatist Nagorno-Karabakh.

Minister Dmitry Medvedev said if Russia stopped selling arms, both countries would simply seek new suppliers.

"They would buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness wouldn't change," he said in an interview on state television. "But at the same time, this could to a certain degree destroy the balance" of forces that exists in the South Caucasus region.

Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces this month have used artillery, tanks and other weapons on a scale not seen since a separatist war ended in 1994. The war left Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military.

The Russian arms sales to energy-rich Azerbaijan have angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and kept close security and economic ties to Russia.

The parallel arms sales to the bitter rivals have reflected Russia's desire to expand its influence in the strategic region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West. If the Karabakh conflict escalates, it could disrupt the oil and gas shipments.

The fighting that broke out last weekend killed about 75 soldiers from both sides along with several civilians. A Russia-brokered truce went into effect on Tuesday, but Azerbaijan and Armenia have both accused the other of violating it daily.

(KA)