Azerbaijan in first-ever Eurovision triumph

Azerbaijan scored a spectacular first-ever win on Saturday in the 56th Eurovision Song Contest, Europe's annual pop extravaganza watched by tens of millions of people.

Eurovision tradition dictates that Azerbaijan's victory means that the 2012 competition is set to be held in the resource-rich former Soviet republic often criticised by campaign groups for having a poor human rights record.

"Now Europe will really learn about Azerbaijan," accountant Sakina Akhmedova told AFP in Azerbaijan, a 9.1-million-strong mainly Muslim but officially secular state by the Caspian Sea.

"It's a great advertisement for a country like this."

Thousands of people partied through the night in central Baku after the victory of duo Ell and Nikki was announced, ignoring heavy rain as they danced, chanted and waved flags.

In Duesseldorf, Germany, their catchy love song "Running Scared" was voted the best of the 25 finalists by fans watching at home and by "expert" juries in 43 countries in Europe and beyond.

"Thank you, we love you," said Ell, 20, real name Eldar Gasimov. "Thanks to God and to my grandad... Our dream came true."

"From the first day I believed we could do it... The world needs more true love."

It was only the fourth time that Azerbaijan had competed in Eurovision, one of the world's longest-running television programmes and an opportunity for Europeans to forget the continent's woes and let their hair down.

"I can hardly imagine how people are feeling back home today," said Nikki, 31, whose full name is Nigar Jamal, and who lives in London - and has an accent to prove it.

They saw off strong competition from Germany's Lena, who was hoping to become the first person in Eurovision's long history to win two years running, spiky-haired Irish twins Jedward and French tenor Amaury Vassili.

A number from Zdob si Zbub, a difficult-to-pronounce group of lively Moldovans in "cosmic" pointy hats looked a strong contender, as did songs by Sjonni's Friends from Iceland and from Italian crooner Raphael Gualazzi.

In the end Italy was second and Sweden came third. Germany was 10th, one place ahead of Britain, while France, the bookies' favourite, was 15th. Bringing up the rear were Spain and Estonia, with Switzerland last. Ireland came eighth.

Often cringe-worthy but always watchable, Eurovision is a cherished institution, with 43 nations - including some from outside Europe - competing, then whittled down to 25 for the grand final.

"It's amazing. This competition brings Europe together and brings countries together. This is what I went into music for," said Lee Ryan, 27, a member of this year's British entry, newly reformed boy band Blue.

The TV show is now broadcast not only in Europe, but also in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States, even though they do not participate.

But Baku will be a considerably more unusual venue than Eurovision fans are used to, and one that could well be controversial.

Earlier this month in Azerbaijan, a young opposition activist was jailed for two and half years on drugs charges after using social networking website Facebook to call for an uprising like those in the Arab world.

Rights group Amnesty International said that the activist's imprisonment showed how far the authorities were willing to go to silence dissenting voices, saying the environment for freedom of expression was "fragile".

But the governing party of President Ilham Aliyev says that a discredited and unpopular opposition has been trying to stir up confrontation which could damage the country, and analysts believe that widespread political unrest is unlikely.

In Baku in the early hours of Sunday horns resounded through the streets as cars full of cheering people rushed into the city centre, with "Running Scared" blaring out.

"Baku is nice," one of a small band of Azerbaijan fans told AFP in Duesseldorf.

"It's by the sea, a bit like Brighton."

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