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Azerbaijani Officials Blame Opposition, 'Mentally Ill' For Unrest

BAKU -- Officials in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan admitted today that security services have arrested people in a small village, but say that the opposition and mentally ill people are responsible for the situation, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

Azerbaijani officials had previously denied that there was any unrest in the village of Bananyar or that anyone had been arrested.

People who witnessed the events said some 500 police and Interior Ministry troops cracked down on the villagers first on December 28 -- the day after the Ashura holiday -- and again on January 5, arresting more than 100 people and beating or harshly interrogating many others.

They added that one resident, Yunis Aliyev, set himself on fire to protest the way police were beating his father, 66-year-old Kamal Aliyev. Police also detained his mother and two sisters.

Police reportedly did not try to stop Aliyev from setting himself alight. Iranian television station Sahar reported that he is in a hospital in the Iranian city of Tabriz.

In a statement issued today, Naxcivan officials offered a different version of events.

They claim that the arrests in Bananyar -- a small village of some 3,000 people -- were caused in late December when a group of people led by local Popular Front Party leader Rza Nuriyev forced a "mentally-ill man, Yunis Aliyev, to get drunk and instigated him to go to the local administration and demand the reopening of some kiosks that had been closed in the village."

It claims that Aliyev, 36, then went to government officials in Naxcivan and said if the kiosks were not reopened he would commit suicide. Since they were not reopened, the statement said, Aliyev "attempted to burn himself alive."

The government statement added that not only Aliev suffers from mental problems, but "other members of his family are treated in psychiatric facilities" and "his uncle died of a psychological disease in 2002."

Journalists, Activists Barred

Troops remained in the village until January 7, but police continue to patrol the area and have checkpoints on the streets entering Bananyar.

Journalists and human rights activists have been barred from entering the village.

Ten people have been released from jail since January 7, but there are reportedly about 15 people still behind bars. Some other villagers were reportedly sent to a mental institution.

The whereabouts of Nuriyev, 70, and his two sons are unknown.

According to Naxcivan's Permanent Representation in Baku, the Naxcivan's
Interior Ministry is conducting an investigation into Aliyev's case and it said many people were questioned.

But the office said that villagers "attacked and injured police officers with blunt tools" before they "realized their mistake and asked to be pardoned."

The statement said that the situation in the village is "stable" and it accused the media of launching a campaign of misinformation about the events in Bananyar.

Isa Gambar, the leader of the opposition Musavat party, said he was outraged by the heavy-handedness of the Azerbaijani security forces in Bananyar.

He told RFE/RL that those who "ordered and committed this crime should be punished. It seems to me the government doesn't want any source of resistance; it wants to strangle the resistance in the cradle. But [this policy] will have a boomerang effect and eventually damage the government itself."