Six Killed as Azeri Police Clash With Shiite Group Near Capital

  • Azerbaijan says attempted detention provoked armed resistance
  • Two police die during firefight; group's leader was arrested

Six people were killed in an armed clash Thursday between the Azeri police and a Shiite group that’s seeking to overthrow President Ilham Aliyev’s government and impose Sharia law in the country, the authorities said.

Two of the dead were police officers, the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office said in a website statement. The altercation occurred in the town of Nardaran near Baku, the capital, they said.

The firefight, the deadliest so far between security officers and religious movements challenging Aliyev’s secular government, broke out when police attempted to detain members of the group led by influential Shiite cleric Taleh Bagirzada. The group fired on police with assault rifles and used a hand grenade, according to the statement.

Bagirzada, a fierce critic of the government, was arrested along with several other members of his group, called the Muslim Union. Bagirzada was imprisoned in 2013 for two years on drug charges. He’s denied the accusations.

The Azeri government is wary of neighboring Iran’s influence on religious groups in the country of 9.5 million, where more than 60 percent of the population share Iran’s Shiite religion. Pro-government media accused Bagirzada of ties with Iran, which he rejected.

Movsum Samadov, leader of the outlawed Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was imprisoned in 2011 for attempting to overthrow the government, a charge he denied.

Nardaran is a devout Shiite town that’s the scene of frequent anti-government protests. Two people were killed there in 2002 in a clash between police and residents. The government accused Iranian-backed groups for the unrest.

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