US Warns of Spies in Azerbaijan

WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The United States has advised its citizens in the Caspian Sea republic of Azerbaijan to beware of "anti-American" spies–the State Department said on Tuesday.

It quoted an announcement last Saturday by the US embassy in Baku that information had been received "that anti-American elemen’s interested in thwarting US interests in Azerbaijan have been surveying US companies–personnel and property."

The announcement gave no details of who might be conducting the surveillance–or why.

The former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is at the center of a Caspian basin oil boom that has provoked fierce rivalry among Western and Russian oil companies and brought a flood of foreigners–including Americans–to the country.

The embassy urged Americans to avoid predictable movemen’s–not to open their house doors to strangers–to watch for people following them or loitering around their homes or offices–and to drive to safety if they thought a car was following them.

"Don’t drink to excess. If you do drink–use the buddy system so that you arrive home safely," it added.

It advised US citizens to report all suspicious incidents to their companies security officer or to the US embassy.

Azeri officials on Wednesday expressed surprise after the United States warned its citizens in the Caspian Sea oil state to be on the lookout for anti-American spies and activities.

"This announcement by the American side evokes surprise–as there is no basis for such worry," said a high-ranking security ministry official who did not want to be named.

"The American Embassy–as well as other embassies in Baku–cannot provide facts proving a real threat to the lives of diplomats or foreign nationals," he said. "Azeri officials are taking measures to protect them."

Western countries–Russia and Iran have all been jostling for influence in Azerbaijan–which is developing its Caspian Sea oil industry by offering lucrative contracts to international firms. Companies have so far signed contracts worth $40 billion for projects in Azerbaijan.

A flood of Americans and other foreigners have arrived in the former Soviet republic since the start of what some see as a new oil boom.

Michael Bosshart–a political officer at the US Embassy–declined to say what kinds of threats it had identified.

"There are certain forces which are trying to harm American interests in Azerbaijan. You will have to interpret our statement as it is. It was made for American citizens in Baku so that they are careful," he said.

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