About 20,000 rally as Azerbaijani opposition parties try to force election rerun

More than 20,000 opposition supporters crammed into a Baku square Sunday in the second mass protest in recent days demanding a rerun of last weekend's disputed parliamentary elections in this oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.

Gathering under a sea of orange flags and chanting "Resign!" and "Freedom!", opposition activists railed against what they said was a fraudulent vote, and sought to spark widespread popular protests similar to those that propelled opposition leaders to power in three other former Soviet republics in recent years.

But with the lack of a single charismatic leader and wide suspicions among most Azerbaijanis, the opposition has so far failed to garner much momentum or enthusiasm outside political activists. Possibly reflecting a change in strategy, Isa Gambar, leader of one of the three main opposition parties in the Azadliq opposition bloc, called on President Ilham Aliev to enter into dialogue with his opponents.

Official results show Aliev's ruling party won the most seats in the 125-member legislature, the Milli Majlis, while opposition parties won just a handful. International monitors have agreed with the opposition, saying the vote fell short of democratic standards. But the outside observers, such as the Council of Europe, have declined to back the call for a new election, instead saying officials responsible for the alleged fraud should be punished.

Aliev, who took over from his long-ruling father two years ago in tainted elections, dismissed the possibility of a revolution, saying that the people were satisfied with his government. He has also taken some steps to reassure Western nations who have built close ties with Azerbaijan, looking to benefit from the country's vast oil and gas reserves.

Aliev has fired two governors accused of interfering in the elections, and four local election officials have been detained on suspicion of falsifying results and abuse of office. New balloting will take place in three districts where pro-government candidates had won seats, and after a recount in another district the seat was awarded to Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front, one of the three parties in the Azadliq bloc.

On the Baku square, hundreds of riot police armed with batons and shields watched as some protesters shouted "Tents in the Square!" and appeared to grow more defiant as the official deadline for them to disperse passed after two hours.

Groups of young men dropped to their knees, as if to start a sit-in, but most protesters reluctantly began leaving. About 15 minutes after the meeting's official end, the square was empty. The opposition has asked permission to hold another rally on Friday, AP reports.


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