Thousands Rally on Rumors of Azeri Leader’s Death

BAKU (Reuters)–Thousands of opposition party supporters rallied in Baku on Saturday to demand free and fair presidential elections as rumors swirled that Azeri President Haydar Aliyev was dead and his son may be tapped to succeed him. Azeri officials again denied that 80-year-old Aliyev–the dominant political figure in the oil-rich Caspian state for three decades–had died in Gulhane military hospital in Turkey–where he has been receiving medical treatment since early July.

Opposition newspapers carried the report of his death after appearing first on a Turkish Web site.

Despite the official reassurances–diplomats and residents in Baku said concern was growing about Aliyev’s health–fragile for years–and suggestions that his less popular son–Ilham–would be installed in his place. Waving flags and chanting "Freedom!" and "Down with the president!" about 4,000 supporters of four opposition parties demanded a fully democratic election to choose a new president.

We have some information that Aliyev is dead," said Arif Gadzhiyev–deputy head of the Musavat opposition party–as supporters waved the party’s bright blue flag behind him.

"We think Ilham Aliyev should not become president. There will be some serious conflict if he does–especially within the ministries." Under the constitution amended by referendum last year–if the president dies–Prime Minister Artur Rasizade takes over as interim head of state until elections for a new leader are held. A presidential poll is scheduled for October.

The election commission registered Aliyev junior on Friday as a candidate. His father was the first of 19 to be registered.

COLLAPSE IN PUBLIC

Speculation over Aliyev senior’s health has intensified since he was treated in May for low blood pressure and a fractured rib after collapsing twice during a speech. Azeri diplomats say he will soon return home after "routine checks."

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that he sent President Vladimir Putin condolences for a suicide bombing at a military hospital near Chechnya which killed dozens of people.

In Turkey–state-run TRT-2 television quoted Colonel Ekrem Kaynak–the secretary general of Gulhane Hospital–as saying Aliyev’s health was fine and his treatment was continuing.

Turkey’s transport minister–speaking to reporters after arriving in Baku on Friday–said doctors at the hospital had also told him the Azeri leader was in good health.

Nevertheless–many Azeris–Western governmen’s and oil firms are wary about any leadership transition–not least because of Azerbaijan’s large reserves of crude oil.

Aliyev senior has dominated Azeri politics since becoming local KGB chief and then Communist Party boss in the 1960s under Soviet rule. He became president of post-Soviet Azerbaijan in 1993.

In recent years–he has been promoting his 41-year-old son–vice-president of the state oil company and deputy head of the ruling party–as his successor. Photographs of the president in ministries have been replaced with photographs of him and his son side by side.

Aliyev junior graduated from the elite diplomatic institute in Moscow and speaks fluent English–but has a past reputation as a playboy and is said to have lost a fortune in casinos.

Some critics say he lacks his father’s self-discipline and commitment. Others want to end the family’s grip on power.

"We want to bring down the whole Aliyev family," said Khamil Mamedov–54–a history teacher at the rally. “We want an end to the corruption and repression of his regime."

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