MOSCOW -- Thousands of protesters in Azerbaijan shouting "Freedom!" and vowing to occupy downtown Baku were beaten back yesterday 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 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 farther 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," Murad Gassanly, a consultant for the opposition Popular Front Party, said by telephone.
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," Baku police said in a statement.
"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.
Protesters 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.
Yesterday'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.
Yesterday, the central election commission disbanded 108 precinct election commissions because of 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.
Kim Murphy writes for The Los Angeles Times.