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Azerbaijan: Security Forces Remain On High Alert After Yesterday's Election Violence

The situation remained calm in Baku today 24 hours after street protests that left at least one person dead and dozens injured. But police have been placed on high alert in anticipation of renewed unrest over the country's disputed presidential election.

Prague, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tension has eased in the South Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan after the pitched street battles that broke out yesterday in Baku between police forces and opposition activists protesting the outcome of this week's presidential vote.

Fearing more violence, however, authorities have ordered tightened security measures in the Azerbaijani capital. Azerbaijani media reports say police reinforcements have been sent to Baku from other regions and that security forces are patrolling the city in a bid to prevent the opposition from staging new demonstrations.

Armored personal carriers could be seen earlier today on the seafront, and security forces were practicing antiriot exercises. Busloads of police remained stationed near potential trouble spots.

Yesterday's unrest erupted shortly after the Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing that Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev -- the son of outgoing leader Heidar Aliyev -- had won a landslide victory in the 15 October vote.

With over 90 percent of the ballots counted, Ilham Aliyev garnered nearly 80 percent of the votes. His main rival, Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar, is trailing far behind with only 12 percent, and the six remaining candidates are sharing the remainder. Final results were expected to be made public by 2 p.m. GMT today.

Opposition leaders have protested the outcome of the vote, accusing authorities of massive ballot fraud.

Musavat Chairman Qambar is claiming victory. In comments made to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service late yesterday, the opposition leader said he would use all constitutional means to have the results of the vote nullified. "We want to protect and preserve the people's will and votes and we will continue to do so," he said.

Other opposition leaders have said that they will not recognize the outcome of the vote. Etibar Mammedov, the chairman of Azerbaijan's National Independence Party (AMIP), yesterday told RFE/RL the election had been "completely falsified."

In a joint statement released yesterday, Musavat, AMIP, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the reformist branch of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan accused the Aliyev family of "usurping power." They called on the European Union and the United States to "objectively assess the political situation in Azerbaijan."

The leaders of Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Georgia have congratulated Ilham Aliyev on what they describe as his "decisive victory."

But the EU has not officially reacted to the vote and most foreign governments have refrained from any immediate comment. The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) yesterday criticized Azerbaijani authorities, saying the election had fallen short of international standards in many respects.

Echoing those remarks, Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer said he "deeply regretted that Azerbaijan had once again missed an opportunity to meet European election standards." Condemning post-election violence, Schwimmer also called upon "the opposition, and in particular the [Azerbaijani] authorities, to act responsibly."

The United States yesterday gave a mixed assessment of the Azerbaijani election. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington believed the voting was generally orderly, although it did not meet all international requirements. "U.S. observers noted, specifically, problems with voters lists, cases of coercion, and other irregularities," he said. "We are also concerned by reports of violent clashes after the election, and we urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint. As in the past, we call on Azerbaijan's government to follow through on its OSCE commitments and to fulfill its duties for the safety of its citizens and the safeguarding of its rights. We also call upon the opposition parties to act peacefully and within the law."

Azerbaijani authorities have rejected holding any responsibility in yesterday's clashes, accusing the opposition of attempting to seize power by force.

Qambar denied the claim. In comments made to RFE/RL today, the opposition leader accused the government of provoking the clashes to divert the attention of both the Azerbaijani public and the international community from accusations of election fraud. "Their purpose is to change the agenda because the [real] issue is, 'Whom did the people cast their ballots for and who falsified the vote?' Now the agenda is being changed with the [focus] put on stability. That is something that concerns the citizens [of Azerbaijan] and the rest of the world, too," he said.

Reports appear to agree the unrest was sparked by thousands of angry Musavat activists who surged down Baku's main square to protest the outcome of the vote and police violence against the party headquarters the previous night.

Using batons, truncheons, tear gas, and dogs, security forces succeeded in dispersing the crowd and securing Azadliq Square. Smaller clashes were reported in other Baku areas.

Heidar Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party yesterday said violence claimed two lives, including that of a young boy. But a revised toll released today by the Baku police department says only one demonstrator was killed.

Police claims that 50 security officers and only 20 protesters sustained injuries could not be verified. Independent reports suggest the toll is closer to 300 wounded, mostly civilians. Security forces say they have arrested nearly 200 opposition activists.

Interior Minister Ramil Usubov today said authorities would do everything to prevent new troubles and pledged to punish those responsible for yesterday's unrest.

Government officials personally blame Musavat leader Isa Qambar for the violence. Azerbaijani state television yesterday quoted Baku police chief Maharram Aliyev (no relation to Heidar and Ilham) as saying Qambar and his lieutenants might face criminal prosecution.

Authorities say the Musavat leader has been placed under police surveillance and the independent Turan news agency yesterday reported security forces had blocked the office of the "Yeni Musavat" opposition newspaper.

Unconfirmed reports say several Musavat activists have been detained throughout the country amid calls from Yeni Azerbaycan leaders to "disinfect" the country's main opposition group. Azerbaijan's Milli Meclis (parliament) today held an emergency session to assess post-election violence. All 96 lawmakers present voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of Qambar's political ally and Umid party leader Iqbal Agazade for allegedly inciting yesterday's unrest.

Human rights groups, by contrast, blame Azerbaijani authorities for the violence. In a statement released yesterday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) nongovernmental organization said, "violence could have been avoided, had the Azerbaijani authorities given political space to the opposition." It added, "But instead, for months the government consistently failed to allow peaceful political protest."

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)