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2 Die in Azerbaijan Vote Protest

Riot police break up demonstrations after the president's son is declared the winner. Foreign observers say the election was flawed.

October 17, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — At least two people died Thursday when police crushed protests by thousands of demonstrators, enraged after Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev was declared the victor in an election to succeed his ailing father as president.

Foreign monitors said Wednesday's election was seriously flawed and failed to meet democratic standards. They did not, however, say whether they believed that Aliyev's victory depended on a fraudulent vote count.

With more than 90% of the vote counted, Aliyev had 80% to opposition leader Isa Gambar's 12%, the Central Election Commission said.

Public opinion and exit polls varied widely depending on the political sympathies of the sponsoring organizations. An exit poll Wednesday by the independent Turan news agency and the ADAM Center for Social Research -- organizations with a pro-democracy bent -- showed Gambar taking 46% and Aliyev with 24%. Those numbers would have forced a runoff.

Based on exit polls and very early results, Gambar declared himself the legitimate winner Wednesday night and called on his supporters to back that claim. When they attempted to hold an unauthorized rally Thursday afternoon in Liberty Square, in downtown Baku, the face-off with police quickly degenerated into a battle.

Helmeted riot police with shields used tear gas and truncheons to fight protesters armed with wooden sticks. Protesters drove a truck into the police, knocking several down. Detainees were severely beaten and kicked even after they stopped resisting. There also was conflict when police entered the House of Councils building on the square and dragged out protesters.

Reporters saw at least half a dozen motionless bodies, including that of a boy, perhaps 6 years old, who appeared to be dead.

Some shots were heard, and a taxi driver later said he had taken a civilian to a hospital with a bullet wound to his leg. Police also used dogs on long leashes.

"The authorities all of a sudden decided to use inappropriate crowd-control means," Gambar said in an interview Thursday evening. "Several people got killed, and there have been many more injured people.

"I think the authorities are doing all this deliberately, aiming to hide the truth from the people and falsify the elections. They want the issue to boil down to that of stability, nothing else."

Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, said at a news conference that a young boy and an elderly man had died in the melee.

"Radical opposition members have attempted to forcibly change the results of the poll and are now taking steps to forcibly seize power in the country," Ahmedov said.

Kamalua Vagif, 33, who looked on as police cleared the last protesters from the square, said that she and her husband had friends in both political camps and that she had been desperately hoping a clash could be avoided.

"We can't afford to do this," she said, fighting back tears. "We mustn't. We have no right. We are all people, and we don't live in the Stone Age. And even in the Stone Age I'm sure they didn't act like this."

After the main confrontation, police chased groups of protesters through downtown for several hours, sometimes forming cordons across streets or along sidewalks to control pedestrians' movements. At times, rock-throwing protesters forced the police to fall back, but they quickly regrouped and charged again, banging on their shields with their truncheons. Some demonstrators threw rocks through shop and bus windows.

By late afternoon, as the clashes eased, several thousand police stood guard around the House of Councils building and at the ruling party headquarters.

Mubariz Qurbanli, the ruling party's deputy executive secretary, expressed satisfaction with the election results, despite the clashes.

"I think the police are performing their professional duties," he said.

"These people who have staged acts of disobedience in Baku have smashed a number of shop windows and cars. We need to maintain public order.... We think this week has been truly productive for us. We have won. Ilham Aliyev is a smart and progressive person, and he will carry on with Heydar Aliyev's course."

The elder Aliyev, 80, a former KGB general and member of the Soviet Union's ruling Politburo, came to power in 1993 when the government faced a military rebellion and conflict with Armenia. His supporters credit him with bringing stability and developing the country's oil industry.

Peter Eicher, head of an observation mission sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said at a Thursday news conference that the balloting marked "a missed opportunity for a genuinely democratic election process."

"Many observers did confirm troubling irregularities in voting, counting and tabulation," Eicher said. "These included, unfortunately, cases of ballot stuffing, falsified counting and tabulation protocols, ballots circulating outside the polling stations and interference by unauthorized persons in the voting and counting processes."

Gambar said he regretted the violence, and suggested that his supporters were not responsible.

"We wanted everything to be done peacefully, and we intend to express the political will of the people only through peaceful demonstrations," he said. "It is quite possible that there were some provocateurs among the demonstrators, or representatives of the forces that are interested in the aggravation of the situation in the country ... so that the authorities would have an argument against the opposition that would justify further reprisals."

Gambar said he had information that authorities were considering arresting him, but that he did not know whether it would happen. His party has not decided on its next step, he added.

"We don't have any public actions planned for tomorrow," he said. "If something happens tomorrow it will be spontaneous and carried out by the will of individual voters."

*

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

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