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Azerbaijan Deepens Crackdown On Shi'ite Stronghold

Authorities in Azerbaijan have conducted a sweeping security operation in Nardaran, a suburb of Baku known as a traditional Shi'ite Muslim stronghold.

The December 1 raid came just days after armed clashes between police and local residents left five alleged Shi'ite militants and two police officers dead.

A joint statement by the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry, National Security Ministry, and Prosecutor-General's Office said the operation was aimed at "protecting citizens' legal rights and freedoms" and confiscating weapons and explosives from "criminals."

Several residents were reportedly detained.

Journalists on the scene said government forces and armored vehicles entered Nardaran before police blocked all roads to the settlement and searched homes for weapons.

Residents were warned against taking any action "posing a threat to public order, the life or health of the representatives of the authorities."

"They're searching almost every house in the village," Natiq Kerimov, a Nardaran community leader, told RFE/RL.

"To be honest, everybody is scared," said another resident, who declined to give his name. "We are afraid."

The authorities had already arrested at least 14 people on suspicion of radicalism and antigovernment activities during the deadly skirmishes on November 26.

Detainees included Taleh Bagirzadeh, the leader of a group called the Movement for Muslim Unity.

Officials allege that religious extremists from Nardaran were planning "terrorist acts and mass disturbances" to "disrupt social concord and political stability" in Azerbaijan.

Nardaran residents, however, deny their village is a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

They say they are simply demanding the return of the bodies of those killed on November 26 and the right to practice their religion.

According to village elder Kerimov, residents are also angry at what they denounce as biased coverage by pro-government media, some of which have accused alleged Nardaran extremists of plotting a coup against the government.

Azerbaijan is a Shi'ite-majority country. Nardaran, however, is home to Iranian-influenced fundamentalists often seen as being at odds with the secular government.

Many women in the village wear the full Islamic veil and girls wear the hijab, or head scarf, to school despite a national ban.

Bagirzadeh received his education in Iran and his unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity is not part of the officially approved Muslim hierarchy in Azerbaijan.

While events in Nardaran have sparked jitters in Baku, where police have stepped up security at subway stations, the crackdown is also raising some eyebrows.

"Authorities still haven't returned the bodies of those killed," Sahin Haciyev, an editor at Azerbaijan's Turan information agency, told RFE/RL. "They promised two or three days ago but haven't done it yet. If you ask my opinion, this is a human rights violation."

Haciyev said Azerbaijani authorities have done little to address disgruntlement in Nardaran. "The government doesn't know what to do with this district," he said. "They have no strategy, they don't think about what could happen tomorrow. There's no dialogue, no discussion of this issue."

"The real problem," he said, "is how the government is trying to resolve the situation: only with the use of force."

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