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THE WORLD

President's Son Declared Winner in Azerbaijan

With 86% of the districts reporting, government says Aliyev got 80% of the vote. The opposition charges fraud, and protests break out.

October 16, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev won an overwhelming victory in presidential balloting, according to preliminary returns released early today. But opposition leader Isa Gambar, charging fraud, declared himself the legitimate victor and called on supporters to rally this afternoon to press his claim.

"I am sure that I have received more than 60% of the vote," Gambar said during a late-evening news conference at his Musavat party headquarters, as about 250 supporters outside faced off against helmeted riot police. "Naturally we cannot put up with the fact that the Aliyev regime has stolen our victory one more time. The fight will continue."

With results from 86% of Azerbaijan's election districts, the Central Election Commission showed Aliyev with 80% of the vote, Gambar with 12%, and Etibar Mamedov, the other major opposition candidate, with 3%.

Early today, about three hours after Gambar's claim of victory, special black-uniformed police outside his headquarters used clubs to clear the remaining crowd, which had dwindled to about 100. Dozens were dragged away, some severely beaten. Some protesters fought back with wooden sticks.

"Knowing full well that they didn't get the votes they wanted, the authorities are using force to stay in power," Gambar said after the clash, with more than a dozen bloodied supporters visible inside his headquarters.

The area remained calm through the rest of the night and into the morning. Authorities said 14 protesters were arrested in the clash.

The prime minister is seeking to succeed his ailing father, 80-year-old President Heydar A. Aliyev, in what critics condemn as a dynastic succession. Supporters of the younger Aliyev view him as the standard-bearer for his father's policies, which include close cooperation with Western oil firms.

"I voted for a happy future for Azerbaijan," the prime minister told reporters after casting his ballot. "Azerbaijan doesn't need to return to the past -- to war, to chaos ... and all the people understand that."

A former KGB general and member of the Soviet Union's ruling Politburo, Heydar Aliyev became acting president in 1993 when the government faced a military rebellion and conflict with Armenia. His supporters credit him with bringing stability and economic growth, while his critics accuse him of corruption.

Shortly after polls closed Wednesday evening, Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling party, said he was confident that "the majority of people have voted for Ilham Aliyev."

"It reflects the success of the policies that Heydar Aliyev was conducting over the past 10 years. It is also the success of Ilham Aliyev personally," he said.

The opposition, however, insisted that voting procedures had been unfair and that a fraudulent count was underway.

The conclusions of foreign observers, including about 600 election monitors working under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, are due to be announced today. Their position could influence subsequent actions of both the opposition and the government.

Tensions outside Musavat headquarters began building when the polls closed, as several hundred Gambar supporters assembled on the sidewalk and five trucks of police pulled up.

The first violence came when a group of particularly strong-looking demonstrators broke through police lines, which prompted the first wave of beatings by police. The main clash, which came about four hours later, appeared to be a street-clearing operation initiated by police.

"We know the people around here will defend their votes," Jeyhun Aliyev, 28, an unemployed man among the protesters, said early in the evening. "We're willing to spill our blood if needed. There's been massive rigging of the vote."

After the first clash between police and protesters, one of the policemen whose political sympathies apparently lay on the other side quietly warned a reporter to be careful: "These people are beyond themselves with rage. I understand everyone in this country wants Isa Gambar, but Ilham Aliyev is a real force. Don't mess around with him."

Hanna Harasimowicz-Grodecka, an OSCE observer from Poland who witnessed the clash outside the Musavat headquarters, said that "what happened tonight is horrible."

"If it happened in my country I would say it is a war against my own people," she said. The main clash was provoked, she said, not by the protesters but by the special police, whom she described as "some sort of armed people in black uniforms."

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Times staff writer Alexei V. Kuznetsov in Baku contributed to this report.

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