Coup 'off at half cock' fails to impress long-suffering Azeris: The latest struggle for power in Caucasus republic centres on rebel opposition to BP-led oil deal, writes Hugh Pope in Baku

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The Independent Online
A NEW struggle for power is rocking the government of the ill- starred Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan. But the long-suffering residents of the capital, Baku, greeted the state of emergency yesterday with indifference, although it meant another round of curfews, unexplained gunshots in the night and public buildings surrounded by nervous bands of soldiery.

Fathers walked daughters to school past machine-guns, morning traffic careered around tanks on roundabouts and pedestrians sauntered in the autumn sunshine past the headquarters of a rebel group of Interior Ministry troops that has suddenly challenged the one-year-old administration of President Geidar Aliyev. The 71-year-old veteran of the Soviet Politburo reacted quickly, surrounding the rebel headquarters in a Baku suburb. Standing between around 8,000 well-armed rebels with several tanks and the town centre were several hundred soldiers, three tanks and a unit from the Azeri Caspian Sea fleet.

Four soldiers were hurt in a exchange of fire on Monday, but the British embassy said the situation had improved since then. 'If it was a coup attempt, it went off at half-cock. Aliyev knew something like this would happen. The worst is past. After the first punch, Azeris prefer to sit down and talk rather than fight it out,' said a Western diplomat.

Mr Aliyev commandeered all the television channels to tell his 7 million people that the rebellion was the latest in a series of disastrous events since he brushed aside Russian objections on 20 September and signed an dollars 8bn ( pounds 5.1bn) oil investment deal with a Western consortium lead by British Petroleum. 'We must unite . . . this is all to damage Azerbaijan's stability,' said a drawn-looking Mr Aliyev.

The President said the rebels opposed the Western oil deal and were also demanding the resignation of Rasoul Guliev, the Speaker in parliament who had promised to see the 30-year production- sharing agreement ratified this week. But he admitted he did not understand the rebellion. Azeri journalists said the clash could even have started accidentally, and that Revshen Javadov, one of the coup leaders, insisted he was not seeking power.

According to Mr Aliyev, the latest conflict started on Sunday night when Mr Javadov, the impulsive deputy interior minister, sent his men to attack the Prosecutor General. They beat him and other officials up, wrecked the building and held up to 40 hostages until dawn. This was apparently an attempt to free three of Mr Javadov's Interior Ministry soldiers about to be charged on suspicion of links to the assassination of two top officials - the deputy Speaker, Afiyeddin Jalilov, and Shemsi Rahimov, commander of the presidential guard - on 29 September.

Mr Aliyev linked all this to the mysterious freeing of three opposition figures and an ethnic rebel leader from Azerbaijan's top-security jail on 22 September. 'These are the results of dirty forces, both inside and outside the country, who are enemies of our independence,' Mr Aliyev said.

Such 'dirty forces' could be anyone from hardliners in Moscow to the powerful Speaker, Mr Guliev. Mr Aliyev, interviewed by the Independent after the first jailbreak, declined to blame Moscow outright but he noted differences of opinion with Russia and said he was resisting pressure to allow Russian guards back on the Azeri frontier with Iran, the only former Soviet border not so manned.

'They want it . . . but we will not give up on Azerbaijan's independence,' Mr Aliyev said. An Azeri official filled in the diplomatic gaps, saying: 'It's the Russians he means. They are putting us under huge pressure.'

Western diplomats say the charge against Russia is plausible but unproven. The Russian oil conglomerate, Lukoil, for instance, has a 10 per cent stake in the new oil consortium. And if Russian hardliners are stirring things up to prevent parliament ratifying the BP deal, they can find plenty of instability to work on.

Not all Azeris are enchanted by Mr Aliyev, and even members of the old Popular Front government are rallying to Mr Javadov. Dissidents believe Mr Aliyev's circle has benefited from the oil deal and note that his son was a negotiator. There is also the problem of frustration over the six-year-old conflict with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh. Fighting has been stilled by a cease-fire for the past five months, but successive Azeri governments have proved powerless to do anything for the 1 million Azeris made homeless, or to regain the 20 per cent of the country under Armenian occupation.

The latest uprising has uncomfortable parallels with the rebellion that toppled the government last year. But Mr Aliyev is a skilled negotiator and is likely to buy the rebels off with the same promises that allowed him to outflank Suret Husseinov, last year's popular rebel leader and now nominally the Azeri Prime Minister.

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