Prague, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Azerbaijan, clashes between security forces and residents of a small eastern town that authorities claim is a hotbed of religious radicalism have renewed tension in the South Caucasus republic.
Shortly before daybreak today, crack police forces raided Nardaran, a Caspian settlement located 25 kilometers north of Baku, which had been the scene of heavy clashes in June of last year.
Residents believe the raid was aimed at detaining Haci Haciaga Nuriev, the town's chief elder and an alleged leader of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, and delivering him to court. Police in turn say the operation was designed to detain what they described as "suspected criminals."
A joint statement released by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office says residents met security forces with armed resistance, forcing policemen to resort to truncheons, tear gas, and guns loaded with rubber bullets.
Eyewitnesses, however, give a different account. They claim the masked police officers started beating people and firing into the air immediately after entering Nardaran on board half a dozen buses.
Authorities say 10 residents were injured during the clashes and that police forces detained eight people. But an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Nardaran that the clashes left 17 civilians and six police officers injured.
Whether the security raid really was aimed at apprehending Nuriev is unclear.
On 31 January, Nuriev failed to appear before the Appellate Court of Azerbaijan, which is reviewing a regional court's verdict that sentenced him to a suspended prison sentence on bribery charges. Last week, the Appellate Court reportedly asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to detain Nuriev before 12 February and hand him over.
Following the police operation, some 3,000 people staged a protest on Nardaran's main square. No further unrest was reported.
The town has been a flash point of tension in recent months as residents protested poor living standards, demanded jobs, and asked for better social services, such as clean drinking water, light, and heating fuel.
On 3 June 2002, at least one resident was killed and another 15 suffered gunshot wounds during a police raid. Dozens of civilians were also arrested.
Since then, Nardaran has been the scene of renewed protests, which central authorities have blamed on radical religious groups allegedly linked to Iranian conservative clerics or the Al-Qaeda network.
Although Nardaran is known to be religiously conservative and have a large Koranic school, or madrassah, residents have rejected any links with fundamentalist groups and blamed the government for using these accusations as a pretext for repressing social discontent.
Following last June's clashes, police cordoned off Nardaran for several months, preventing residents from reaching the plots of land on which they grow vegetables outside the town's walls and barring local fishermen from using their boats.
Opposition leaders have criticized the government for refusing to heed Nardaran residents' long-standing complaints and meet their social demands. They have also dismissed official reports that the protests were religiously motivated.
Both the Council of Europe and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe condemned the June violence.
(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)