Fighting Rocks Azerbaijan Village

Residents of a village with Islamist sympathies are in defiant mood, several days after police opened fire on local protestors

Fighting Rocks Azerbaijan Village

Residents of a village with Islamist sympathies are in defiant mood, several days after police opened fire on local protestors

Saturday, 6 July, 2002

Police opened fire on angry protestors in a village close to Baku this week, leaving one man dead and dozens wounded, in violent clashes of a scale unseen in Azerbaijan for several years.

While the villagers blamed the fighting on police aggression against unarmed civilians and the authorities accused the village of harbouring Islamic extremists, many observers were in agreement in regarding the violence as a symptom of rising discontent with the governing regime of President Heidar Aliev.

Tensions began on the morning of Monday June 3, when hundreds of soldiers and interior ministry troops with dogs entered Nardaran, a village some 40 km north of Baku on the Caspian Sea coast. Nardaran, which has 7,000 inhabitants, is well known for its strong Islamist sympathies and is the site of a famous Muslim shrine.

People in Nardaran have twice held protest rallies this year. They have put forward a series of demands for improvements in social conditions, including the building and repair of roads, regular gas and electricity supplies and the provision of new jobs.

An IWPR correspondent was in the village from Sunday evening until Monday afternoon and saw the trouble develop. Before the police arrived, eight village elders had set off for a meeting with the regional prosecutor about the appointment of a new representative from the village to the Sabunchi region. The villagers wanted to see their own local candidate, Inayat Rustamov, in the post rather than the official appointee Fazilet Mirzoyev.

"We want the representative from the village for the Sabunchi region to be a man respected by the whole of Nardaran," said Haji Mursal, an elder who remained in the village. "We want to choose our own head. That's not illegal is it?"

However, news later reached the village that the delegation of elders had been arrested. The villagers delivered an ultimatum for them to be freed within two days, threatening to respond with unspecified radical measures if their demands were not met.

By midday, hundreds of villagers had gathered in the central square of Nardaran to voice their complaints. However, all was quiet until darkness fell and additional security forces arrived.

The police took the decision to attack the demonstrators at the very moment that they were heeding the call to prayer and heading to the mosque for evening worship. Fighting erupted when between 150 and 200 enraged men of all ages rushed towards the police, despite warnings that they were about to open fire. Shots rang out and several men crashed to the ground. The crowd became even angrier and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the officers.

At one point the protestors managed to push back the police cordons, overturning their cars and setting them alight. The clashes continued for several hours, after which the security forces began to leave the village.

When relatives began to take the wounded to hospital they were arrested and taken away; the exact number of detainees is unknown. After that, the Nardaranis decided to treat their wounded - estimated to number around 20, some of them with serious injuries - at home.

An official statement by Azerbaijan's interior ministry and prosecutor's office the next day declared that, "in the course of rioting four police cars were burned and eight more were destroyed, 35 policemen received serious injuries. As a result of the shooting, one local resident, Alihasan Agayev, was killed."

When the fighting ended, Nardaran continued its defiance and declared three days of mourning. Alihasan Agayev was declared a shehid, or martyr, "in the fight against Heidar Aliev's regime". Villagers erected barricades of burnt-out cars on the roads leading to the centre of the village, keeping the security forces out.

The villagers continued their rallies, demanding the release of arrested elders and that action be taken against the Sabunchi region's chief prosecutor. "Until the men guilty of the death of Alihasan Agayev are punished, Nardaran will not submit to the official authorities," said Haji Mursal.

"We have all the means we need to respond to the police," said Hussein, a young man in Nardaran. "But so far our elders have not allowed us to do that. Let someone try to attack Nardaran today. No one will stop us and the blood of our martyr will not remain unavenged."

Two days after the fighting, several hundred men were still reported to be demonstrating in the central square, which had been spread with carpets and flowers in honour of the casualties from the fighting. The authorities appeared to take the events very seriously and sought to prevent Nardaran's defiance spreading to neighbouring areas. Special checkpoints, manned by armed men, were set up on all roads leading to the village.

President Aliev refused to comment on the violence the next day, as Baku's annual oil and gas exhibition opened in the capital. "Today I am dealing only with the oil exhibition," he said. The authorities blamed the trouble on provocateurs, claiming that they were trying to disrupt Azerbaijan's annual gathering of foreign investors, with Iranian backing.

Interior ministry spokesman Sadik Gezalov told IWPR that "these actions had the aim of paralysing the work of the local authorities and establishing in the village a religious order, based on Islamic fundamentalism."

Azerbaijani opposition politicians were quick to condemn the police violence in Nardaran. "The use of the army against the civilian population is proof of an attempt to establish a police state in the country," said Ali Kerimov, head of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan.

Some local elders are seeking to mediate in the dispute and are even inviting officials to come to the village. "They have no need to be afraid," said Haji Alikram, the leader of the Islamic Party in the village. "We are not cut-throats. We do not want blood. We want to see them come to Nardaran. No one will even lay a finger on them. But if they want war, they will get it."

Zaur Mamedov and Lia Bairamova are correspondents with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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