Army tanks and soldiers Thursday guarded Armenian neighborhoods in three Azerbaijani cities shaken by the southern Soviet Union's bloodiest ethnic rioting since March, officials said.

Azerbaijanis say the rioting was triggered by an Armenian campaign to send settlers to a disputed region of their adjacent republic.An 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was imposed in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, and two other cities, Nakhichevan and Kirovabad, where mobs killed three soldiers and injured at least 126 people Tuesday, said Musa Mamedov, head of the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry's information department.

Frightened Armenians in Kirovabad, about 50 miles from the republic of Armenia, formed an emergency committee to evacuate women and children to Armenia, said Arpenay Popoyan, wife of Armenian activist Rafael Popoyan.

She said rampaging Azerbaijanis in Kirovabad destroyed 15 Armenian homes this week.

"The situation is sharply deteriorating in Azerbaijan," Mrs. Popoyan said by telephone from Yerevan, Armenia's capital.

Armenian activist Hovik Vassilian said by telephone Wednesday night from Yerevan that Kirovabad was surrounded by Azerbaijanis who were not letting Armenians escape.

Tensions have been running high in the Caucasus since February, when Armenians began agitating for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijanis say hundreds of thousands of people began taking to the streets in Baku last week to protest what they say is an Armenian effort to send settlers to Nagorno-Karabakh.