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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Opposition Leader Detained

ReutersPolice detaining an opposition supporter Monday in Baku. The opposition said hundreds of people were detained.
BAKU, Azerbaijan -- An opposition leader's plan to return to Azerbaijan under the protection of rallying supporters was thwarted Monday when he was detained on an international warrant in Ukraine and hundreds of his backers were arrested in Baku.

The events caused pre-election tensions to mount in Azerbaijan, where authorities had feared Rasul Guliyev's supporters might try to disrupt their plans to arrest him at the Baku airport on embezzlement charges.

Riot police in full combat gear, some banging truncheons on their shields, dispersed crowds of potential protesters and detained hundreds. Security officers sealed off roads leading to the airport to prevent demonstrators from amassing.

Guliyev -- a former parliamentary speaker and now leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan -- had said he was returning to run in the country's Nov. 6 parliamentary elections. He had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1996 to avoid the embezzlement charges, which he says are politically motivated.

He said in an interview Friday that he expected supporters to prevent authorities from arresting him.

The opposition party said, however, Guliyev's plane was denied permission to land in the country. Azerbaijani Airlines chief Dzhakhangir Askerov disputed that account, saying the plane never entered the country's airspace despite having permission to fly there from London.

The plane eventually landed in the southern Ukrainian city of Simferopol, where authorities arrested Guliyev on orders from Interpol, Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said on the country's Channel 5 television station. Guliyev was being held in custody at the airport, while the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office considered whether he should be extradited.

"I hope they will respond positively to our extradition request," Azeri Interior Minister Ramil Usubov said on Azeri television.

Democratic Party member Talyat Aliyev said several hundred members of the Azadliq, or Freedom, opposition coalition, which includes Guliyev's and two other parties, had been detained since Sunday, and that Guliyev's wife had been taken to an unknown location.

Usubov said about 100 people had been detained Monday and 26 of them arrested. Among those detained was former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov.

Usubov called on citizens, foreign diplomats and journalists to stay away from the airport, telling private ATV television that Guliyev's supporters planned to unleash unrest.

"I am afraid that now a war of repression against the opposition will start, and this shows that it is impossible to hold free democratic elections," said Matilda Bogner, a Human Rights Watch representative.

On the streets of Baku, police were asking all groups to disperse, and an Associated Press reporter saw several would-be protesters detained at a subway station near the airport.

"We want to see Guliyev! We have no money, no bread," screamed one woman before police stuffed her into a waiting van.

At a police checkpoint about one kilometer from the airport, officers armed with automatic rifles separated travelers from potential protesters and forced a car crammed full of carnations -- an opposition symbol -- to turn back.

More than 40 truckloads of Interior Ministry troops had been brought into Baku.