Thousands Join Rare Opposition Rally in Azerbaijan

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Thousands of Azerbaijani opposition supporters held a rare authorized rally Sunday to demand a free-and-fair presidential election scheduled for October in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet state.

Police detained several activists as some 3,000 supporters of Azerbaijan's main opposition coalition, the National Council of Democratic Forces, waved banners and chanted support for Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov's bid to unseat strongman president Ilham Aliyev.

"Now that the opposition has united into the National Council in order to take on the authoritarian Aliyev regime, this regime will be swept into history," said Isa Gambar, head of opposition group Musavat.

"We are going to support the single candidacy of Rustam Ibragimbekov until the end."

Any display of public discontent or political dissent usually meets a tough government response in the oil-rich nation, whose presidential vote is scheduled for October 9.

Sunday's rally in the capital Baku was sanctioned by the mayor's office but only for an obscure location about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the city center, and police confiscated banners criticizing Aliyev ahead of the event.

Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss, has faced repeated criticism over his human-rights record.

He looks certain to win another term despite the opposition rallying around Ibragimbekov -- who co-authored the 1994 film "Burnt by the Sun", winner of the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, with Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov.

Ibragimbekov's candidacy remains shrouded in uncertainty as he says the threat of arrest in Baku and the lengthy process of giving up his joint Russian citizenship in order to stand in the election are keeping him abroad.

Human-rights activists have accused the Azerbaijani authorities of stepping up a campaign to stifle opposition and strangle criticism in the run-up to the election.

Earlier this year, security officials ruthlessly suppressed a rare spate of protests, including one against alleged harassment in the army, detaining scores of activists across the country.

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