Sunday, May 22, 2005
BAKU, Azerbaijan, May 21-- Azeri protesters demanding free elections were beaten back Saturday by police, who arrested dozens as they broke up a banned rally in the oil-rich country four days before the inauguration of a new pipeline.
Tensions between the government and the opposition in the tightly controlled nation increased following an October 2003 election in which Ilham Aliyev replaced his late father, Geidar Aliyev, as president in a vote that the opposition said was marred by fraud. A parliamentary vote is scheduled for November.
Officials had forbidden the opposition to protest, citing security concerns ahead of a visit by foreign leaders for a ceremony marking the opening of Azerbaijan's portion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which has been backed by the United States.
The mostly Muslim country, a U.S. ally in Iraq, is the starting point of the pipeline that Washington says will reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East.
The violence broke out as groups of protesters tried to make their way to a central square in the capital, Baku, shouting "Freedom!" and "Free elections!"
Helmeted police with riot shields and truncheons chased protesters, dispersing the rally after about two hours. Police detained dozens of people, putting them into buses and vans.
A human rights activist, Saida Godzhamanly, said more than 100 people were detained, including 10 women. Ali Kerimli, head of the People's Front of Azerbaijan party, said about 300 people were being held.
The police said 45 people were detained for disorder and refusing to obey police.
A journalist from an independent newspaper who was bloodied in the fracas -- despite wearing clothing marked "press" -- and a passerby who was knocked unconscious by a truncheon blow were taken to the People's Front headquarters.
The clashes came against the backdrop of a wave of change in other former Soviet republics, where protests against long-entrenched governments over alleged election fraud have helped bring opposition forces to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past 18 months. Uzbekistan has also faced unrest.