Clashes between security forces and residents of a small eastern town that authorities claim is a hotbed of religious radicalism have renewed tension in Azerbaijan. This is the second such incident in eight months. Last June, a police raid in the same town left at least one civilian dead. Residents who were initially protesting against poor living standards are now making political demands.
Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several hundred people staged a demonstration today in the Azerbaijani town of Nardaran, 25 kilometers north of Baku, demanding that President Heidar Aliyev step down. They are also demanding the release of eight residents arrested yesterday during a security clampdown.
Shortly before daybreak yesterday, police forces raided Nardaran, a Caspian settlement that was the scene of heavy clashes last June. The operation began at about 3 a.m. as dozens of residents were sleeping under a large tent on Nardaran's main square as part of a protest vigil they have been maintaining for the past eight months.
Residents initially believed the raid was aimed at apprehending Haci Haciaga Nuriev, the town's chief elder and an alleged leader of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. However, Nuriev was not detained and was among the organizers of today's demonstration.
On 31 January, Nuriev failed to appear before the Appellate Court of Azerbaijan, which is reviewing a regional court verdict sentencing him to a suspended prison sentence on bribery charges. The court later asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to detain Nuriev before 12 February and hand him over.
Police say yesterday's raid was designed to detain those whom they describe as "suspected criminals" wanted in connection with last June's events.
An Interior Ministry statement read on national television last night said Nardaran residents used force to resist the police and that policemen had to resort to truncheons, tear gas, and guns loaded with rubber bullets. Official claims that residents threw a hand grenade at security forces could not be confirmed.
Eyewitnesses, however, give a different account. They say dozens of masked police officers started beating up people and firing into the air immediately after entering Nardaran on board half a dozen buses.
Speaking to RFE/RL late yesterday, one resident recalled the events of the previous night: "Approximately 80 or 90 policemen came into the town -- at least I counted that many of them. I saw that they were chasing people, and I went out into the street. I thought they were killing everyone. They were using automatic rifles. I crossed the street, and they started firing in my direction."
Authorities said 10 civilians and six policemen were injured during the clashes, but an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Nardaran that the clashes left 17 residents and six police officers injured.
Yesterday, the Azerbaijan National Committee of the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly, a nongovernmental human rights organization based in Baku, issued a statement condemning the police operation. The group also said that no one was reported to have suffered any bullet wounds.
Talking to an RFE/RL reporter last night, another eyewitness showed a handful of empty cartridges that he said he had found on the ground after police left the town: "Right now, we cannot say for sure whether anyone has received any bullet wounds. It looks like the policemen just fired into the air to frighten people. Still, they hit people with their rifle butts. There was no grounds for that, because people were asleep when they came."
Nardaran has been a flash point of tension over recent months, as residents have been protesting poor living standards, demanding jobs, and asking for better social services such as 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 clerics or Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
Although Nardaran is known to be religiously conservative and to have a large Koranic school (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 clashes in June, police cordoned off Nardaran for several months, preventing residents from reaching their allotments 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' 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 have condemned the June violence.
(Rovshan Gambarov and Qabiran Dilaverli of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)