MOSCOW — Thousands of protesters in Azerbaijan shouting "Freedom!" and vowing to occupy downtown Baku on Saturday were beaten back by riot police wielding truncheons and water cannons. Witnesses said hundreds of protesters were injured, along with at least 26 police officers.
The demonstration, in which opposition leaders demanding new Parliament elections appeared to be staging an attempt to occupy the capital's Victory Square, ended abruptly when officers in helmets and riot shields broke apart the speaker's stand, ripped orange flags out of protesters' hands and began beating demonstrators and opposition leaders with batons, leaving several people lying injured in the square.
Once demonstrators were driven into nearby side streets, police sealed off the square and opened fire with water cannons to drive crowds further from the scene, witnesses said.
"We thought there was a possibility that something like this would happen, but we could not even imagine it would be so savage. To say that the use of force was excessive would be an understatement," Murad Gassanly, a consultant for the opposition Popular Front Party, said in a telephone interview.
Baku police officials said they cleared the square only after it became obvious that opposition leaders planned to stage an indefinite sit-in in violation of the law.
"Rally organizers were warned in advance not to turn the rally into a mass disobedience action," the Baku police said in a statement, carried by Interfax news agency.
"Despite this, in the course of the action, its organizers began to call on the demonstrators to disobey the authorities, and began to take specific measures to achieve their goal. Chanting, 'We will not leave the square,' (opposition leaders) called on those present to hold an action of indefinite duration on the square," the statement said.
Demonstrators waving orange flags occupied the streets in Ukraine's capital last year to protest fraudulent elections and eventually force new balloting that brought the opposition to power.
Saturday's rally in Baku, which opposition leaders said drew 10,000 demonstrators, was the latest in a series of protests since the Nov. 6 Parliament elections. The balloting gave a majority of seats in the 125-member legislature to the ruling New Azerbaijan party, leaving opposition parties with just 10 seats.
Facing widespread criticism from international observers and the U.S. State Department over the legitimacy of the voting, Azerbaijan authorities on Wednesday released official results which gave the ruling party not the 63-seat majority it had initially claimed but a total of 58 seats. With the opposition still limited to 10 seats, the remainder went to independent candidates, many of whom are likely to be pro-government, and belong to little-known small parties.
On Saturday, the central election commission disbanded 108 precinct election commissions due to various violations of election law.
The U.S. State Department has credited the government for conducting a more open campaign and better monitoring than during previous elections, but said there were credible reports of "major irregularities and fraud that may have disenfranchised voters" in several districts around the country.
The U.S. Embassy was critical of what officials called the "police violence" during Saturday's rally and called for the government to "punish those responsible" for the incidents.
"We deplore the unjustified and unprovoked use of force against citizens peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly," embassy officials said in a statement.
Although opposition rallies have toppled governments in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as well as Ukraine over the past two years, the opposition in Azerbaijan has neither the overwhelming public support nor defections from within the ruling regime seen in those other former Soviet republics.
President Ilhelm Aliyev is criticized for allowing his cronies to maintain an economic grip that has blocked reform and prevented the benefits of the Caspian Sea oil boom from reaching deep into his nation of 7.9 million people, which is wedged between Russia and Iran. But he remains reasonably popular, and analysts have tended to play down the chances of success of an attempted "Orange Revolution" of the kind seen in Ukraine.
Police said only about 4,500 protesters were at the rally, and said "several" were injured, but gave no precise figures.