Violence Escalates in Azeri Protests

BAKU (Combined Sources)–The US has condemned the use of force to disperse crowds in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Saturday who were protesting about recent parliamentary elections.

"We deplore the unjustified and unprovoked use of force against citizens peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly," said a statement issued by the US embassy in Baku.

Saturday saw the first use of police force against a rally since the November 6 election.

Supporters of Azerbaijan’s opposition parties have gathered at Baku’s Victory Square every weekend since the republic held a parliamentary election Western observers considered to be marred by fraud.

Previous rallies dispersed peacefully and many opposition supporters came to Saturday’s event with their families and children expecting to hear leaders of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) alliance speak–before going home.

But as the time limit for the rally–set by the oil-rich republic’s authorities–expired and protesters showed that they intended to stay for a sit-in–hundreds of riot police were sent in to break up the protest.

Hundreds of policemen in full riot gear had lined the edges of Victory Square for the latest of a series of tightly controlled demonstrations.

In the panic that ensued–a number of people were crushed by a retreating crowd and many protesters lost their shoes as they ran from police who were firing tear gas guns and spraying demonstrators with water cannons.

After the crowd retreated and the tear gas fumes settled–a handful of people lay sprawled out on the asphalt unconscious amid the debris of discarded orange flags–banners–and lost clothing.

In the headquarters of the opposition Popular Front party after the rally–doctors treated a dozen activists wearing blood-smeared clothes with cuts and bruises.

Hospitals were filled with injured protesters–some as young as seven years old.

In the hospital–26-year-old Yashar Rahimov–his breathing labored–spoke about how he was beaten as he tried to shield a 13-year-old girl.

"I was on the square to fight–not for myself–but for my children," said Rahimov–a Baku resident who sends most of the money he earns here to his family–who live in a threadbare town in central Azerbaijan.

Police chiefs said only one demonstrator sustained injuries–while 20 officers were seriously hurt.

They branded the demonstrators–who defied a two-hour limit on their rally–as "provocateurs" and denied using water cannons or tear gas.

Fearful of the kind of post-election revolts that toppled entrenched regimes in Ukraine last year and in Azerbaijan’s neighbor Georgia in 2003–officials have warned they will not tolerate demonstrations that last more than a few hours.

"They were calling for disobedience… we warned them," said Baku deputy police chief Yashar Aliyev.

He said 29 people were arrested–including a leader of the opposition Liberal party.

Opposition leaders have already called for a new rally. Many activists–inspired by Ukraine’s "Orange Revolution" of a year ago and believing the time has come to put more pressure on the government–had called for an open-ended protest.

But President Aliyev–son of the late Heydar Aliyev–says that in his oil-rich state the chances of such a revolution are zero.

The opposition maintains that the results giving President Ilham Aliyev’s party overwhelming victory were falsified and are demanding a re-vote.

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