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Deadly Blaze Reveals Ugly Truth Behind Baku Beautification

A day after more than a dozen people were killed in a massive fire in a Baku high-rise, angry residents are calling on the government to strip city buildings of flammable Styrofoam facing installed as part of a "beautification" scheme aimed at boosting Azerbaijan's global profile.

In some Baku districts, city authorities eager to avoid public unrest ordered workers to begin the process of removing the polyurethane panels from the concrete hulls of aging buildings. But elsewhere, private residents took matter into their own hands, using hammers and sometimes just their fingers to chop off chunks of the crumbly material surrounding their apartment windows and ground-floor walls.

"It's stupid to put up with this in silence. We have to act," said a notice at the top of a Facebook bulletin inviting 23,000 Azerbaijanis to participate in removing the new facades. "We have dismantle this idiotic facing.... Life is worth fighting for."

The fire and its aftermath come less than a month before Baku is set to host the inaugural European Games, an ambitious multisport competition that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has reportedly spent upwards of $10 billion to stage.

The blaze is likely to stoke accusations that Aliyev, who has jailed critics and clamped down on free-speech rights during his 12 years in power, has increasingly marginalized the public in his zeal to create a showcase city.

Fire Hazard

Fourteen people, including several young children, were killed on May 19 when fire engulfed a 16-story residential building in Baku's Binaqadi district. Nearly all the victims died of smoke inhalation.

A woman hurt in the blaze died in the hospital on May 20, bringing the death toll to 15. More than 60 people are being treated for burns and smoke-related injuries.

It took city firefighters more than four hours to subdue the blaze. A video shot by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service showed a person jumping to his death from the fiery building as onlookers cried out in horror.

WATCH: Deadly Fire Destroys Apartment Block In Baku

Deadly Fire Destroys Apartment Block In Baku
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Aliyev, who visited the burned-out building on May 20, hastily canceled a trip to Latvia to attend the May 21-22 Riga summit of the European Union's six Eastern Partnership members.

Announcing the change in plans, Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov made no mention of the fire, saying the cancellation was due to presidential workload related to the European Games.

Aliyev announced the creation of a special commission tasked with investigating the causes of the May 19 fire. But authorities have already detained Miryusif Mahmudov, the head of Global Construction, the firm responsible for manufacturing and installing the polyurethane facades.

Baku Mayor Hacibala Abutalibov said that there were approximately 120 buildings with potentially dangerous facades produced by Global Construction. But a report by the Turan news agency puts the number at closer to 800.


The first new facades began appearing in Baku several years ago, coinciding roughly with Azerbaijan's first major hosting event, the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

Since then, they have been tied to several fires, including a nonfatal Baku blaze on April 10. Shortly after that fire, Azerbaijan's Emergency Situations Ministry issued a document saying the facade material had undergone laboratory analysis and presented no safety concerns.

Workers remove polyurethane panels from a building in Baku.
Workers remove polyurethane panels from a building in Baku.

Polyurethane panels are commonly used in building facades worldwide, but can be dangerous if improperly installed. In the case of the Binaqadi building, the polyurethane panels were erected nearly 30 centimeters away from the original concrete walls, creating a vertical tunnel of oxygen that fueled the fire with devastating results.

Aliyev and city authorities have promised to conduct immediate inspections of all buildings renovated with the new facades, and say they will remove all the panels once the June 12-28 European Games are over.

Officially, building facades in the Baku city center are meant to be constructed from stone. But the polyurethane panels are far cheaper and easier to install than stone facades, and can be used as a shortcut to creating a temporarily clean, stylish facade.

Mounting Anger

Construction has proved a major industry in Azerbaijan, with the ruling elite bankrolling numerous architectural projects -- including the $134 million-dollar Crystal Palace built for Eurovision.

Two-year-old Fereh Meherremova was one of the fire's victims.
Two-year-old Fereh Meherremova was one of the fire's victims.

Global Construction, the firm currently under scrutiny, has been tied to past allegations of corruption.

A 2011 investigation for RFE/RL revealed that members of Global Construction received more than $540 million in suspicious loans from the International Bank of Azerbaijan. (The full text of the report, by now-jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova, can be seen here in Azeri.)

Azerbaijan has come under frequent criticism from the West for rampant corruption and human rights abuses. But critics say it has avoided most censure because of its significant energy wealth and intense lobbying efforts in Washington and Brussels.

On social media, at least, Aliyev is not beyond reproach. Facebook pages have been filled with photos of the youngest victims of the May 19 fire, including 2-year-old Fereh Meherremova, beaming over her brightly decorated birthday cake just days before the fire.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report

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