Opposition Ends Rally Peacefully in Baku; Plans New Protest

BAKU (AFP)–A Baku protest rally against the Azeri government dispersed peacefully today at the scheduled end time after opposition leaders called on some 15,000 supporters to leave.

Protesters filed out of Victory Square after opposition leaders announced they had applied for permission to hold a second rally on Saturday.

"We will tell you when it will be necessary to put up tents," said Isa Gambar–leader of the Musavat party–from the podium. Gambar evoked the 17-day mass protest in Ukraine last year–dubbed the "orange revolution," which toppled the government of president Leonid Kuchma and has been held up as a model by Azerbaijan’s opposition.

"We must show the whole world that we are capable of waging a peaceful struggle. Our strength is in a peaceful struggle–in democratic methods," said Arif Gajili–another Musavat official.

Another opposition official earlier called on demonstrators to mobilize until the government annulled last Sunday’s elections–which were judged not up to international standards by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The opposition called on protesters to stay on the streets for days during the "difficult battle" ahead.

"We are protesting the total fraud of the election and the refusal to give people a chance to choose," said Gabil Guseinle–deputy leader of the Musavat opposition party–at the demonstration that took place under heavy police presence.

We demand "the resignation of the entire government," Guseinle said as protesters chanted "Resign!" and "Azadlig!" (Freedom).

Azadlig–the country’s largest opposition force–has demanded authorities order a re-vote or face regime change in what analysts see as a key political test in this oil-rich Caucasus state.

"If the authorities don’t respect the people’s will… we will demand the complete resignation of the government," Sardar Jalaloglu–deputy head of the Democratic Party–told the crowd from a podium.

Opposition leaders wore orange ties and headscarves in imitation of Ukrainian demonstrators who blocked president Leonid Kuchma from installing his hand-picked successor in the so-called "Orange Revolution" last year.

"The Azerbaijani people want freedom. Support us," said Jalaloglu–calling for backing from the United States and Europe. A group of young protesters wearing bandannas held up orange placards saying: "Mister Bush–Don’t Lose a Friendly Muslim Country!" and "Stop Trading Democracy for Oil!"

"I am protesting against these unjust elections since the state doesn’t want democracy in Azerbaijan," said Vusal Akhadzade–21–one of protesters in the crowd.

Another demonstrator–23 year old Faik–said: "We want this regime to go … They have the force–army–and money and we have the voices."

Several hundred riot police officers in helmets and body armor clutched shields and truncheons–blocking off other access points to the square–located north of central Baku.

Unsanctioned opposition rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote had been broken up by police and there are fears the demonstrations could end in violent scuffles like those that followed Aliyev’s election in 2003.

The Victory Square protest was allowed to go ahead by authorities but only within a strict time limit. Opposition activists say they will defy police by staying beyond the 1400 GMT scheduled close of the demonstration.


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