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Thousands Protest Against Azerbaijan Government

Led by an opposition bloc, marchers demand electoral reforms before a parliamentary vote planned for November.

June 19, 2005|From Associated Press

BAKU, Azerbaijan — In the biggest protest in years, thousands of demonstrators chanting "freedom" and carrying portraits of President Bush marched across Azerbaijan's capital Saturday, demanding the resignation of the government and free parliamentary elections.

The gathering of about 20,000 marchers, the second such rally in as many weeks, was organized by three leading opposition parties that formed the Azadlig (Freedom) bloc to run in parliamentary elections set for November.

About 200 police in full riot gear stood guard around a central square where protesters gathered. Brief clashes erupted when demonstrators tried to push police away from the square and officers fought back with truncheons. Last month, police beat back protesters who tried to hold a banned rally in Baku and detained dozens.

Tensions have been building steadily in this oil-rich Caspian Sea nation in the run-up to the elections, leading some observers to predict that Azerbaijan could see a massive uprising similar to those that toppled unpopular regimes in other ex-Soviet republics -- Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan -- during the last 18 months.

The opposition bloc has chosen orange as its campaign color -- the same color that was used by the Ukrainian opposition during mass protests dubbed the "Orange Revolution." They helped force a rematch in which a Western-backed candidate defeated a pro-Russia rival.

Many participants in Saturday's rally wore orange T-shirts and baseball caps and carried orange flags.

The Azadlig opposition bloc includes the Musavat Party, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.

They are demanding election law reforms and access to state-controlled television. They have accused authorities of rigging the October 2003 presidential election when President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar A. Aliyev, who died later that year. They want changes to prevent fraud in the parliamentary vote.

The 2003 election set off clashes between police and opposition demonstrators who claimed the vote was rigged. Two people died and nearly 200 were injured.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country of 8.3 million, is the starting point of the key pipeline that Washington says will reduce dependence on Middle East oil.

The country also is a U.S. ally in the war in Iraq and has sent troops there.

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