An opposition leader's plan to return to Azerbaijan under the protection of rallying supporters was thwarted when he was detained on an international warrant in Ukraine and hundreds of his backers were arrested in Baku.
The events Monday heightened pre-election tensions in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation, where authorities had feared Rasul Guliyev's supporters might try to disrupt their plans to arrest him at the Baku airport on embezzlement charges.
Riot police in full combat gear, some banging truncheons on their shields, dispersed crowds of potential protesters and detained hundreds. Security officers sealed off roads leading to the airport to prevent demonstrators from massing. Guliyev, a former parliamentary speaker and now leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, had said he was returning to run in the country's Nov. 6 parliamentary elections. He had been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1996 to avoid the embezzlement charges, which he says are politically motivated.
He told The Associated Press on Friday that he expected supporters to prevent authorities from arresting him. The opposition party, however, said Guliyev's plane was denied permission to land in the country. Azerbaijani Airlines chief Dzhakhangir Askerov disputed that account, saying the plane never entered the country's airspace despite having permission to fly there from London.
The plane eventually landed in the southern Ukrainian city of Simferopol, where authorities arrested Guliyev on orders from Interpol, Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said on the country's Channel 5 television station. Guliev was being held in custody at the airport, while Ukraine's Prosecutor General's office considered whether he should be extradited. . Democratic Party member Talyat Aliev said several hundred members of the Azadliq (Freedom) opposition coalition, which includes Guliyev's and two other parties, had been detained since Sunday, and that Guliyev's wife had been taken to an unknown location.
Usubov said about 100 people had been detained Monday, and 26 of them arrested. Among those detained was former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov. Usubov called on citizens, foreign diplomats and journalists to stay away from the airport, telling private ATV that Guliyev's supporters planned to unleash unrest, AP reports.
An intense movement of NATO aircraft was reported at Poland's Rzeszow airfield near the Ukrainian border