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Azerbaijan Protests Face Crackdown

Truncheon-wielding police beat and dispersed opposition protesters demanding a revote of disputed parliamentary elections, the first time since the vote that authorities used force against demonstrators.

Some 15,000 opposition activists gathered Saturday in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, to protest the outcome of the Nov. 6 parliamentary elections which they claimed were rigged, the latest in a series of such opposition actions in recent weeks.

But unlike the previous rallies, the demonstrators on Saturday tried to set up a permanent protest on a square in downtown Baku, triggering a swift police crackdown.

Immediately after opposition leaders said they were going to stage a sitting protest on the square, police in riot gear rushed to disperse them, beating them with truncheons and pushing them away.

Protesters shouted "Freedom!" and some hurled stones at police, who hid behind shields.

Hundreds of soldiers, police and plainclothes police agents quickly pushed protesters away from the square. They shattered a stand used by opposition leaders and broke the opposition's orange banners, the color borrowed from Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

Baku's deputy police chief, Yashar Aliev, said 18 officers were injured in the clash with the protesters. He said police had detained 29 rally participants.

Opposition leaders said scores of protesters were beaten and many were badly injured.

Police used water cannons to drive protesters away from a nearby street.

"They used force against a peaceful rally without any prior notice," said Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front, one of the parties in the Azadliq opposition bloc that organized the protest. "Today Azerbaijani authorities showed their real face."

The opposition parties originally planned to hold the rally on Sunday, but later rescheduled it for Saturday after failing to secure permission from authorities in Baku. The authorities allowed the rally to last for two hours, and police intervened after that time expired and the protest's leaders said they were turning it into a sit-down rally.

International observers criticized the Nov. 6 polls, saying they fell below democratic standards. But Western countries concerned about maintaining stability in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state bordering Iran have not endorsed opposition demands for repeat elections.

Regular opposition protests had encouraged expectations that Azerbaijan was heading to a popular uprising like those that brought opposition leaders to power in other ex-Soviet nations of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

But faced with an authoritarian government led by President Ilham Aliev, who succeeded his long-ruling father Heydar Aliev in 2003, the opposition has failed to capitalize on resentment over corruption that has helped keep more than 40 percent of people in poverty despite the former Soviet republic's oil wealth.

Kerimli said the opposition would stage another rally next Saturday.