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MASSACRE TOLL LIKELY OVERSTATED, OWENS SAYS AFTER VISIT TO ETHNIC ARMENIA REGION

Reports likely exaggerated by tenfold the number of former Soviets slaughtered two weeks ago in a massacre in Nagorno-Karabakh, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said Tuesday after returning from a trip to the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh - which is controlled by ethnic Armenians but not part of the separate, mostly Christian Armenian republic - is seeking independence from the Muslim former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan charged that ethnic Armenians had massacred 1,200 Azerbaijanis in the region's city of Khojaly."My belief is that at most, 125 to 200 people were killed. That's still horrible but not as bad as what had been reported," said Owens, a member of the House foreign affairs and intelligence committees.

"I talked to several members of the press and others who had been to Khojaly," Owens said. "They feel both sides exaggerated."

He added that Armenian republic officials - who supply food, supplies and arms to Nagorno-Karabakh - claimed up to three-quarters of those killed were armed combatants, and the others were women and children who were caught in crossfire.

Owens said Khojaly was a city mainly of Azerbaijanis, from which missiles had been launched against Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. "It's possible some Armenians went in and started shooting everyone in retribution."

"The Armenians say that clearly something horrible happened, and men, women and children were killed," Owens said. Sad pictures of some of those massacred and their mourners have been front-page news in American newspapers and magazines for weeks.

Owens said he is writing to the head of the group seeking independence in Nagorno-Karabakh to insist it set up an inquiry into the massacre by respected outsiders, and that he take steps to prosecute and punish those responsible.

Owens - arguably Congress' most staunch supporter of Armenia - said the massacre had made much more difficult seeking relief for Armenians, many of whom are without food and fuel because of blockades by Azerbaijan (which nearly surrounds it) and other Muslim nations and republics opposing it.

Owens was able to travel to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, but not to Nagorno-Karabakh. Owens said he found "conditions in Armenia are absolutely deplorable."

"The bread lines are horrendous because Turkmenistan cut off natural gas supply, and the furnaces no longer work. We passed a line of people waiting for bread at 8 a.m. When we returned at 11 p.m., the same people were still in line," Owens said.

Owens said Armenia is a nation of a few hundred thousand Christians surrounded by 200 million Muslims who are trying to cut off food, transportation and fuel. "It's a lot like the situation Israel faces: being surrounded by Arabs."

Meanwhile in Armenia, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has enormous respect, Owens said. But some low-level Armenian government officials apparently have pressured citizens not to join the LDS Church.

Owens added that some Armenian officials, in response to his questions, also expressed concern about their citizens joining any church except the Armenian Gregorian Church.

Owens said chemical magnate Jon Huntsman has probably the most respect of any American there because of his humanitarian efforts to help rebuild Armenia after a devastating earthquake in 1988, and he is a member of the LDS Church.

While Owens said he questioned Armenian leaders about reports of pressure against joining the church and about their views on it, he took no position with them about what happened because he had not talked to LDS leaders about their position on such matters.