Vehicle collision sparks mass riot in Azerbaijan

  • Article by: AIDA SULTANOVA
  • Associated Press
  • January 24, 2013 - 3:37 AM

BAKU, Azerbaijan - Hundreds of people in a central town in Azerbaijan surrounded a regional government building Thursday demanding the governor's resignation after a night of rioting in which a hotel and several cars were torched.

Aziz Kerimov, a journalist for independent news agency Turan who traveled to Ismayilli, told The Associated Press that police intermittently deployed tear gas and water cannons at half-hour intervals as the crowd refused to disperse.

Some in the crowd responded to police appeals to free the area by throwing rocks. Between 10 and 15 people have been detained, Kerimov said.

The rioting Wednesday night does not appear to have been politically motivated, but it highlights widespread frustrations over the deep disparity between the poor and wealthy in the oil-rich former Soviet nation. Business is often perceived in Azerbaijan as operating in intimate collusion with the government, which opposition activists argue is riddled with corruption.

Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 139th out of 176 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perception Index. Opposition parties and independent journalists are routinely harassed by the authorities.

Trouble in Ismayilli, a town some 175 kilometers (110 miles) from the capital, Baku, began when the owner of a local hotel, 22-year-old Emil Shamsaddinov, reacted to his Chevrolet Camaro sports car veering onto a sidewalk and colliding with an electricity pole by getting into a fight with another motorist, who was parked by the side of the road in a Soviet-era car.

It is unclear whether Shamsaddinov held the other driver responsible for the crash, but police say he may have been drunk-driving. Shamsaddinov and his passenger have been arrested, but no rioters have been detained, police said.

The dispute spiraled, leading to around 3,000 residents raiding Shamsaddinov's Chyrag hotel and setting alight several of his cars, which included the Camaro, a Chevrolet Niva and a Hummer. Police say the rampage lasted around four hours.

In amateur video of burning vehicles and buildings uploaded to the Internet, people in the crowd are heard laughing and cheering.

The crowd then moved on to the house of Ismayilli district chief's son where they set fire to a Toyota Land Cruiser and two motorcycles.

Kerimov said people protesting Thursday in Ismayilli believe a relative of the regional authority chief may have been involved in the incident that led to the rioting.

This is the second major instance of public disorder in the authoritarian former Soviet nation in a few days.

On Saturday, market traders blocked a highway 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside Baku and clashed with riot police in a spontaneous protest over increased rent for their stalls.

A week before that, in Baku itself, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in a central square in protest at the death earlier this month of a military conscript. It was broken up by police.

That rally was organized through social media, rather than by the established opposition parties, in an indication that opposition to the government is increasingly being propelled by grass-roots activism.

Authorities are particularly anxious about any signs of public discontent in view of this October's presidential election, which is expected to see incumbent Ilham Aliyev retain his iron grip over the Caspian Sea nation.

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