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15,000 Azeris Rally as Pressure Builds

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Thousands of angry demonstrators crammed a square in Baku to protest alleged vote fraud in this weekend's parliamentary elections, while Azeri President Ilham Aliyev fired two regional governors for interfering with the vote count.

The governors of the Surakhani and Sabirabad regions, Natiq Mehdiyev and Ashraf Mammadov, were fired amid Western criticism of the balloting, Aliyev's office said Wednesday. They were the first officials to be punished for their role in the elections.

Earlier Wednesday, the Central Elections Commission had awarded a parliamentary seat in Surakhani to an opposition leader, Ali Kerimli, after a recount forced by allegations of official interference in the original count.

The protesters had answered a call by the Azadliq opposition movement to go into the streets to defend their right to free and fair elections.

The march was the first test of the opposition's ability to mobilize supporters following the elections, and the movement hoped it would generate unstoppable momentum. About 15,000 people took part in the 3-kilometer march, short of the 30,000 to 50,000 the opposition had hoped to assemble.

President Vladimir Putin congratulated Aliyev on successful parliamentary elections, the Kremlin said Wednesday, increasing Russian support for the vote.

Putin told Aliyev by telephone that Sunday's elections would consolidate democracy and strengthen stability in Azerbaijan, his spokesman Alexei Gromov said.

Azeri prosecutors said Wednesday that four election officials had been detained on suspicion of falsifying balloting results and abuse of office, including the election commission chiefs in the regions of Bina and Sumgait. Prosecutors also said they would investigate accusations that 10 precinct commission heads in the Surakhani district allowed vote fraud.

At the Baku rally, Sardar Jalaloglu, a top official in the Democratic Party, said the opposition would give the government a chance to correct its mistakes.

"If the people's will is not fulfilled ... we will go into the streets with a total demand" for the government's resignation, he told the cheering crowd consisting almost completely of men.

The rally, which authorities limited to three hours, was seen as an important gauge of how the political climate is likely to develop in the oil-rich nation. Authorities were keen to demonstrate how few supporters the opposition can marshal, and also how well it can maintain the peace.

Opposition leaders asked the crowd to disperse on schedule, and the protesters did nothing to provoke a violent police response.

Source: The Moscow Times

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