Azerbaijan riots kill two after claims of poll fraud

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At least two people were killed yesterday as angry opposition supporters wielding sticks and rocks clashed with police in some of the worst political violence the republic of Azerbaijian has seen since leaving the Soviet Union.

Anger boiled on to the streets after Ilham Aliyev, son of the ailing dictator, Geidar Aliyev, won a landslide victory, cementing his family's 31-year grip on power. His victory is the first dynastic succession in a former Soviet state.

Reaction in the West was one of relief and quiet satisfaction, despite public expressions of unease at the grossly undemocratic nature of the election. A smooth succession in Baku should ensure the country's vast oil wealth will remain in friendly hands and that a pipeline will be built by a BP-led consortium to bring it to the Mediterranean.

As rioting convulsed the capital on the shores of the Caspian, a child and an elderly man were reported to have been battered to death. Within hours of the result being announced - Mr Aliyev won 79.5 per cent of the vote - 3,000 opposition activists surged towards government buildings, hurling stones and overturning cars.

The opposition candidate, Isa Gambar, polled only 12.06 per cent and his supporters chanted "Isa! Isa!" and banged truncheons and shields they took from police yesterday. The election was also closely watched by the big regional powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran, which wanted the pipeline to go through Iran.

It was left to the OSCE, the largely toothless organisation responsible for fostering democracy across Europe, to complain bitterly that the election was punctuated by violence, intimidation, ballot-stuffing and media bias.

"This election was a missed opportunity for a genuine democratic election process," said Peter Eicher, head of the observation mission for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He cited instances of ballot-stuffing, falsified vote counts and interference by unauthorised people in the voting and counting.

An Associated Press reporter saw a crowd of demonstrators beat a soldier to the ground, leaving him apparently unconscious, until two men in civilian clothes dragged him to a car. Police wielding shields and rubber truncheons fired blank rounds in the air and launched an assault on the crowd, beating protesters and journalists. After repulsing the demonstrators, police raised their truncheons, pounded their shields and cheered.

World leaders congratulated Mr Aliyev on his victory, among them the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who are close to the Aliyev family.

Mr Aliyev, 41, a former senior official at the state oil company, remained out of sight, appearing only briefly on state TV to receive congratulations from Turkey, which is close culturally and linguistically. He has pledged continuity with his father's policies in a country which is locked in an uneasy ceasefire with its neighbour Armenia after a vicious separatist war in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

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