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Sabotage fear over metro fire

Authorities in Azerbaijan have not ruled out the possibility that the world's worst underground-railway disaster, which claimed some 300 lives in Baku, could have been the work of a saboteur, according to reports from the region last night.

President Geidar Aliyev told a US diplomat that, while preliminary information pointed to a technical fault, the tragedy was "possibly an organised act of sabotage", said the Azeri news agency, Turan. Initially the government said the disaster was an accident caused by outdated Soviet equipment. This was despite the fact that the Baku metro has been bombed twice in the past 18 months, with the loss of 20 lives.

If it was terrorism, it is not clear who was to blame. Azerbaijan has been engaged in a long and bloody territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorny Karabakh enclave. Parliamentary elections, due next month, have also been the focus of considerable friction, not least because the President banned five parties from involvement.

Prayers were held in a mosque yesterday for some of the victims, killed when fire and carbon monoxide swept through a train after it stopped between two stations in central Baku on Saturday.

While the tragedy has profoundly shocked the oil city, the amount of information reaching the rest of the nation's 7 million people is limited. The government has imposed a virtual news black-out: there have been no pictures of the carnage on television and most channels were off the air, or playing sombre music. There were still differences yesterday over the death-toll, with figures ranging from 289 to 337.