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Azerbaijan: President Said Committed To Fair Elections Amid Demonstrations

Baku, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev said (Sept. 13) he is committed to holding open democratic elections, one day after police clashed with protesters in the capital of Baku. Aliev, speaking to Gerard Stoudmann, head of the OSCE's office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said that free and fair presidential elections were a central objective of his government. He said that for him, free and democratic elections were "more important than who will win."

Aliyev is running for re-election in the October 11 presidential poll.

Separately, opposition groups are boycotting the elections to protest what they consider a lack of democratic reform in the country. Azerbaijani police and interior ministry troops clashed in Baku (Sept. 12) with hundreds of demonstrators trying to hold a march and rally that had been banned by the government.

Hundreds of police and groups of protesters at several locations around the Azerbaijani capital clashed for several hours into the late evening. RFE/RL's correspondent in Baku earlier reported numerous injuries among the protesters, whom he said were beaten back by police using their fists and batons.

Azerbaijani police say nine of its officers were hurt seriously in what they called "mass disturbances." Police spokesman Akshin Zeinalov said 15 people were arrested, but that all had since been released. Opposition leaders say 100 people were arrested.

The protesters tried unsuccessfully to converge on the central Freedom Square for a rally of opposition groups boycotting October 11 presidential elections. The groups want changes in the Central Electoral Commission, which was mostly formed by Aliev.

The ITAR-TASS news agency quotes an opposition leader, former President Albufaz Elchibey, vowing that the protests would continue until opposition demonstrators were allowed to meet on the square. Elchibey told TASS that the opposition would stage another rally "soon," but declined to be more specific.

Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov vowed that the protests, which authorities said were "unsanctioned" and "illegal," would not be allowed to go ahead. Aliyev did not refer directly to the clashes and made no mention of opposition demands. OSCE representatives were in Baku to organize election monitoring and observed the confrontations.