- Five people killed in clash in suburb of capital last week
- Town elder rejects government accusations of fomenting unrest
The Azeri government deployed security forces to a town near the capital Baku to “restore order” and disarm what it described as a radical Shiite religious group that’s seeking to overthrow the government and impose Sharia law.
President Ilham Aliyev is overseeing the operation in Nardaran, the scene of a deadly battle between police and a religious group last week, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website Tuesday. Police warned residents not to resist, promising to punish severely those who opposed security officers after people put up barricades and held illegal demonstrations following the clash, the ministry said. The head of the town’s Council of Elders rejected accusations that people in Nardaran were trying to overthrow the government and impose Sharia.
“Some residents of the town are acting against the secular and democratic form of government, putting forth separatist demands,” the ministry said in the statement. “These people, who have chosen religious radicalism and extremism as a way of life, refuse to obey Azerbaijani laws.”
Two police officers and five members of a religious group died in last week’s battle in the town of about 10,000 people in the northern outskirts of Baku on the Caspian Sea. After the clash, police seized weapons and explosives and arrested 24 people including Taleh Bagirzada, the leader of the Movement of Islamic Unity. The Azeri government has accused the group of having ties with neighbor Iran, which it has warned may be trying to build influence in the country of 9.5 million, where more than 60 percent are Shiite Muslims.
“Thousands of troops have been deployed in the town since early morning,” Natiq Karimov, head of the town’s Council of Elders, said by phone. “Houses are being searched for weapons,” while electricity, phone lines and Internet services have been cut, he said.
Relatives had yet to receive the bodies of residents of the town who were killed in the clash with police, he said. He added that authorities had labeled the dead “terrorists,” which he rejected along with the government’s other accusations.
The government sees Nardaran, which publicly celebrates more religious festivals than the rest of Azerbaijan and festoons its streets with banners bearing pious slogans, as a bastion of radical Shiite Islam. Pro-government media have accused Bagirzada of harboring ties with Iran, which he rejected. The Iranian-educated Shiite cleric established his group in January to “change the constitutional order” and impose Sharia law, according to the ministry. Bagirzada has also denied those claims.
The Iranian embassy in Baku rejected what it said were allegations made in Azeri media and by some members of parliament that it was involved in the events in Nardaran. “These attacks are aimed at smearing Iran and damaging relations between the two countries,” the embassy said Tuesday in a statement.