Police arrest dozens of Azerbaijani opposition parties amid attempted unauthorized protest

Opposition activists clashed with riot police as Azerbaijan's largest opposition alliance defied authorities' refusal to allow a protest rally _ fueling fears of growing unrest in the Caspian Sea nation just weeks before parliamentary elections.

Opposition leaders said dozens were beaten and arrested in the confrontations Sunday, which were abruptly suspended after authorities called for surprise negotiations to try to calm spiraling tensions in the oil-rich former Soviet republic that borders Iran.

"Our goal is free, democratic elections," party leader Ibraghim Veliyev said, adding that he was hit by police truncheons during Sunday's rally. "In spite of everything, we will continue our struggle. Authorities must understand that the country needs changes."

Rising tensions before the Nov. 6 vote have led some observers to predict that Azerbaijan could see a mass uprising similar to those that brought opposition leaders to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The mostly Muslim nation of 8.3 million is the starting point for a pipeline that will ship oil and gas from Azerbaijan's huge offshore reserves to a Turkish Mediterranean port.

Though the opposition has held nearly weekly demonstrations, Sunday's was the first mass protest to be held without official permission since the October 2003 presidential election, which the opposition said was rigged and which sparked rioting.

President Ilham Aliev, who succeeded his late, strongman father in that election, has pledged repeatedly that the November elections would will be free. Opposition leaders said, however, they strongly doubted the vote would be fair.

Hundreds of activists on one Baku street chanted "Resign!" and "Free Elections!" and carried red carnations as they confronted a row of riot police. As they tried to break through the cordon, officers using truncheons beat them back and forced them to flee.

Isak Avazogli, a spokesman for the People's Front of Azerbaijan, one of three parties making up the Azadlig opposition alliance, said more than 100 people were detained. City police officials said 15 officers were injured in the clashes and 42 activists were detained.

"This is an unsanctioned action, and police were performing their duties," deputy city police chief Yasar Aliyev said.

Appealing for calm, opposition leaders held 30 minutes of closed-door negotiations with authorities _ an unprecedented decision by a government that has kept the opposition at arm's length.

"It's clear that authorities, on the eve of parliamentary elections, fear they will find themselves in an unpleasant situation before the world community," political analyst Rasim Musabekov said. "There is not the slightest doubt that the elections will be falsified; the question is will it be completely falsified."

One opposition party spokesman said Laura Scheibe, a political officer with the U.S. Embassy in Baku, had participated in the talks. Scheibe could not be located for comment, and no one answered telephones at the embassy Sunday.

Party leader Ali Kerimli said the law stipulates that the opposition must only notify authorities before staging rallies. Government officials disagreed, but said they would hold further discussions Monday about the legality of future rallies, he said.

"We are not the same opposition as before; we are more united in our strength," he said.

More than 2,000 candidates are running for 125 seats in parliament, AP reported.