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Arrests As Azerbaijani Police Use Water Cannons, Tear Gas Against Protesters

  • RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

QUBA, Azerbaijan -- Security forces have dispersed a protest in Azerbaijan's northeastern Quba district, using water cannon and tear gas and detaining several people amid a national outbreak this week of unrest over worsening economic conditions.

Some 1,000 people had gathered for the January 15 demonstration in the district capital to protest unemployment, and demanded that overdue social allowances be paid off and bank loans recalculated.

The local currency, the manat, has seen a drastic depreciation brought on by a drop in world oil prices.

Quba district chief Yashar Mammadov met with protesters at a location called the Old Bus Station and said he was ready for talks to address their problems.

But an RFE/RL correspondent on the scene said demonstrators dismissed Mammadov's promises and continued the protest, prompting the security forces to use water cannon and tear gas.

Security forces made several arrests before protesters dispersed, the correspondent reported.

The city is now under the authorities' full control. It was not immediately clear whether more protests were planned for January 16.

There was no immediate official reaction to the protest in Quba, the RFE/RL correspondent said.

Earlier in the day, demonstrators attempted to block access roads leading toward the capital, Baku. The RFE/RL correspondent said police subsequently established checkpoints on all major roads in the Quba district.

Quba was the scene of violent protests in 2012 that resulted in a number of convictions after windows were broken at government buildings and a home belonging to the local governor was set alight.

In the latest unrest, authorities on January 15 deployed a large number of security forces -- police officers and Interior Ministry special forces -- to Quba, saying they had information that a bomb had been placed in a mosque in the city center. But officials later said no explosive had been found at the site.

Security forces have also established checkpoints on highways leading to Quba and on other major roads in the province.

Security forces have also established checkpoints on highways leading to Quba and on other major roads in the province.

Scores of protesters and several opposition activists have been detained this week since protests broke out, sparked mainly by price hikes on staples such as flour and bread.

Moving rapidly to stifle protests and prevent further discontent, authorities have cut the price of flour and imposed controls over the price of bread.

The Economy Ministry said it was waiving value-added taxes on the import of wheat and the production and sale of flour and bread as of January 15. The ministry said the decision should reduce the wholesale price for flour, and listed the prices at which bread should now be sold.

"Anyone who sells flour and bread at higher prices will be held to account in the most serious way," the statement said.

Energy makes up the vast majority of Azerbaijan's exports, and plummeting global oil prices have drastically reduced state revenues. Last month, the situation led authorities to float the national currency, the manat, after using up a large part of its currency reserves to prop it up.

Since it was floated, the manat has depreciated by one-third against the U.S. dollar, prompting the Central Bank on January 14 to ban independent currency-exchange outlets from operating.

The government said the latest measures intended to regulate the price of bread were meant to protect citizens from the economic fallout of the oil and currency crisis.

"This decision has been made on the instructions of President Ilham Aliyev to strengthen the social protection the population, in particular poor families, from the change in the rate of the manat," the statement said.

The rising price of flour has been a lightning-rod issue during the protests that have taken place this week in several districts -- Fizuli, Aqsu, Aqcabardi, Siyazan, and Lankaran. Scores of people were arrested on January 13 after taking part in the protests, which authorities labeled "illegal" and which they accused the opposition Popular Front (AXCP) and Musavat parties of staging.

Three opposition activists were arrested during the protests. Two of them -- local AXCP and Musavat leaders Nazim Hasanli and Iman Aliyev, respectively -- were detained in Lankaran, while AXCP youth activist Turan Ibrahim was arrested in the capital, Baku.

Hasanli and Aliyev were each sentenced to one month in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned protest. Both pleaded innocent, saying they had nothing to do with the rallies. Ibrahim was found guilty of using vulgar words in public, resisting police, and disrupting public order, and was sentenced to seven days in prison on January 14.

Aliyev's government has faced increased criticism about rights abuses. Several journalists and rights activists have been jailed over the past year on charges such as hooliganism, tax evasion, and illegal business activities.

Rights groups say the charges are often trumped up and leveled in retaliation for opposition activities and criticism of senior government officials. Azerbaijani officials have denied the allegations.

PHOTO GALLERY: Azerbaijan Under Pressure

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