Azerbaijan claims arrested group had planned 'confusion and horror'

Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 01:00

AZERBAIJAN SAYS an alleged terror group arrested this month had links to al-Qaeda and had planned to cause “confusion and horror” in the country, which is cranking up security ahead of the Eurovision song contest next month.

The Azeri security ministry said that “representatives of al-Qaeda” helped some of the alleged militants attend religious teaching in Syria “with the view of getting ready for jihad”, before receiving weapons training in Pakistan and fighting Nato-led troops in Afghanistan.

Other members of the suspected cell, the ministry claimed, took part in “weapons and physical training” in Iran, which has traded lurid accusations with Azerbaijan in recent weeks.

Tehran has accused Baku of helping Israel to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, while Azerbaijan arrested 22 of its citizens who were allegedly Iranian agents.

Officials said the leader of the Azeri militant group, Vugar Padarov, also forged links with Islamist militants in Russia before being killed when he apparently resisted arrest. Nineteen of his followers were arrested.

A government statement said they were planning “terrorist attacks . . . to create atmosphere of uncontrollability, confusion and horror among the population, to kindle ethnic and religious confrontation, to break stability and to damage the republic’s image”.

Concern over Iran’s nuclear programme is stoking fears of a possible pre-emptive Israeli strike that could trigger a wider conflict in the region, adding to Azerbaijan’s worries as it comes under growing international scrutiny ahead of the Eurovision.

“We are working hard – especially our law-enforcement forces – to address security for Eurovision,” foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov told The Irish Times. “We will do everything possible to ensure that no forces are allowed to ruin this great event for Europe and whole world.”

Azerbaijan is taking the Eurovision extremely seriously, seeing it as a vital opportunity to present itself as an open, modern, dynamic nation rather than a post-Soviet backwater with a dismal human rights record that has been run by the Aliyev father-son dynasty for almost 20 years.

The country’s image has been tainted, however, by complaints about a wave of home-demolitions around Baku and persistent claims that critics of the ruling elite are being blackmailed, beaten and arrested.

Some activists say officials are overplaying security fears to divert attention from other issues.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have called for an investigation into an alleged attack this week on a journalist who was covering the demolition of homes on land owned by the state oil company.

“[This] shocking incident is yet more evidence of the climate of violence in which members of the Azerbaijani media community have to perform their professional duties,” said Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom chief of the 56- nation OSCE, which Ireland now chairs.

Amnesty said Azeri reporters were “coming under attack by state officials bent on preventing them from reporting the truth”.

Mr Mammadyarov insisted that the Azeri press and opposition operated freely and that demolition was being conducted properly and fair compensation paid.