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Azerbaijan Arrests Suspect In Police Slayings, Cracks Down On Protests

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's aide Ali Hasanov

Azerbaijani police have arrested one of two suspects in the stabbing deaths of two police officers during a protest, with a topgovernment official warning against attempts to "destabilize" the country.

Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry said late on July 11 that the search is under way for a second suspect who it said was involved in the stabbing deaths of two high-ranking police officers while they were confronting about 200 demonstrators gathered outside the local administration headquarters in the western city of Ganca late on July 10.

Police detained 40 participants and dispersed the protest, which erupted while President Ilham Aliyev was traveling abroad.

Aliyev's aide, Ali Hasanov, afterwards warned against what he called efforts to "destabilize" the energy-rich nation, saying perpetrators would face punishment.

"Those who want to provoke confrontation and chaos in Azerbaijan will face the stern face of the law," Hasanov said on Facebook.

Azerbaijani media said the protest was over the arrest of a man accused of attacking Ganca's mayor, Elmar Valiyev. Valiyev and his bodyguard were shot and hospitalized last week.

'Coup Plots'

Authorities allege that the suspected gunman, Yunis Safarov, belonged to a radical Islamist group and was plotting a coup intended to pave the way for creating an Islamic state in the mostly Shi'ite Muslim nation bordering Iran.

Azerbaijani authorities, without providing evidence or details, said Safarov was a 35-year-old Russian national who got military training in Iran and fought with an extremist group in Syria.

But Emin Milli*, the director of Meydan TV and a leading opposition figure, said that Azerbaijanis on social media have proclaimed Safarov a "national hero" in thousands of online comments.

Commenting on Facebook, Milli said that's "probably" because Valiyev, the mayor Safarov attacked, "represents this criminal government and was notoriously known for humiliating the citizens that he was supposed to serve."

Milli called the government's charges against Safarov "absurd" and "propaganda" intended to stifle what he described as a potential popular uprising against corruption and authoritarian rule.

The Valiyev incident led to a police crackdown, with another 11 suspects arrested in recent days in connection with the attack as well as in connection with the unauthorized protests that broke out afterwards.

Milli said that people online are reporting that government special forces have closed roads around Ganca, Azerbaijan's second-largest city with a population of 330,000, and were out in force "everywhere."

*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correct the source of the comments by Emin Milli.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Interfax
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