Ailing Azeri Leader Aliyev leaves Turkey for US

ANKARA (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s ailing President Haydar Aliyev left Turkey on Wednesday for a US clinic after a month in a Turkish military hospital–Azeri officials said.

Aliyev–who has dominated politics in his oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea for three decades–was admitted to Ankara’s Gulhane hospital in early July with heart problems. He has not been seen in public since–fuelling rumors of his death.

"In order to continue his examination and treatment–President Aliyev left Ankara…and is going to the US city of Cleveland," an Azeri embassy spokesman in Ankara said.

The CNN Turk television channel–quoting unofficial sources at the hospital–said on Tuesday Aliyev’s condition was critical and that he was sometimes losing consciousness.

But a senior Azeri official in Baku said the 80-year-old leader was in good shape.

"He feels well and his visit is only for a continuation of checks on the advice of Turkish doctors," said Ali Gasanov–a senior official in the presidential administration.

He said the president would stay in Cleveland–Ohio–for at least two days.

The veteran leader’s health has been the subject of intense speculation in recent days and there have even been rumors that he had died in Ankara.

Aliyev became the KGB secret police chief and Communist Party boss in the 1960s in Soviet times. He returned to power as post-independence president in 1993.

In a surprise move in Baku–his 41-year-old son Ilham went on unpaid leave as Azerbaijan’s new prime minister just two days after a docile parliament voted him into office–paving the way for the first dynastic succession in a former Soviet state.

Both men are running in the October 15 presidential poll in which Ilham has said he will help his father win re-election. The government said Aliyev junior was taking a break to avoid his new functions clashing with his election campaign and his deputy would be in charge for an unspecified period. After changes to the constitution Ilham–as prime minister–would automatically succeed his father as interim head of state if Aliyev senior died in office. The move has drawn the wrath of the Azeri opposition.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency said Aliyev left Ankara’s Esenboga airport mid-morning in a specially equipped Russian plane. An Azerbaijan Airlines aircraft on the tarmac was also preparing to leave–the agency added.

The US embassy in Ankara declined to confirm Aliyev’s destination but said he had received treatment in a Cleveland clinic in the past and there were no obstacles to his returning there for further care.

The situation in the central Asian region–including a long-running dispute with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno Karabagh–is closely watched by the United States–which sees Azerbaijan as an alternative source of oil to the Gulf.

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