STEPANAKERT, Armenia — An Armenian-American militant who had risen to command a regiment in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was killed on the battlefield Saturday, officials here said Monday.
Monte Melkonian, born 36 years ago in Fresno, was shot by Azerbaijani troops in an armored personnel carrier as he toured a combat area by jeep, officials said.
In the nearly five years of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Melkonian’s is the first reported death of a high-ranking combatant among the sprinkling of diaspora Armenians fighting here.
A longtime soldier and militant Armenian activist who had fought in Lebanon and spent time in a French prison before arriving in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991, Melkonian was mourned by Armenians here as a hero.
“We actually have won this war so far thanks to ‘Avo,’ ” said Warrant Officer Grayer Grigorian, using Melkonian’s nom de guerre. “He turned our army from a bunch of unskilled amateurs and Rambos into a regular army of discipline, valor and bravery.”
“This is an irreplaceable loss for us,” said Arkady Gukassian, adviser to the chairman of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Committee. “Of course, we will continue to fight without him, but what he did for the creation of our army we will never forget.”
Fighting had flared last weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh, the source of Armenian-Azerbaijani bloodshed since 1988. Some 10,000 people are believed to have died in fighting over control of the largely Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. In recent months, Armenian fighters have taken the upper hand, moving into large swaths of Azerbaijan proper to capture strategic territory.
“Monte implemented every big victory by Armenians in Karabakh,” Gukassian said. “He was hero No. 1, the great hero of Karabakh.”
In an interview last month, Melkonian said he became aware of his Armenian heritage as a teen-ager and had been devoted to the Armenian cause ever since. He studied archeology at UC Berkeley, then traveled to Europe and the Mideast.
“I spent seven years in Lebanon,” he said with evident pride. “We were defending the Armenian quarter of Beirut against the Falangists. That’s where I began learning Armenian.”
In 1979, he worked in Iran to help the movement against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1980, he said, he joined the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, an underground group responsible for attacks on Turkish targets in retaliation for Turkey’s massive oppression of Armenians in the early years of the century. He ended up spending three years in a French prison for possession of weapons, electronic explosive devices and three forged passports.
When freed, he came to Soviet Armenia, where he met and married his Lebanese-Armenian wife.
At his headquarters in the town of Martuni, where he was commander, maps showing historic Armenian lands spreading across much of the Caucasus and eastern Turkey covered the walls.
“To call us aggressors would mean that we’re invading land which isn’t ours,” Melkonian said in the interview. “If you look at the historical lands of Armenia, we’ve never stepped beyond them.”
He insisted that he would fight on until Azerbaijan renounced its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. He said that he and his wife, who lives an eight-hour drive away in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, had had no time to start a family.
“We’ll settle down when the Armenian people’s struggle is over,” he said.