Riot police staged a show of force in the capital of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan on Saturday to stop an unauthorised pro-democracy rally and detained dozens of protesters who defied the ban.
Police with batons and rubber bullets shut down a central square in the capital of the energy-rich, mainly Muslim state, preventing activists from holding the planned rally -- an attempt to emulate uprisings in the Arab world.
But more than 300 protesters managed to gather near Fountains Square and march through the city centre, chanting for the authorities to resign, as police in full body armour and helmets seized demonstrators from the crowd.
"We think that the action was successful," said Fuad Gahramanli, the deputy leader of the Azerbaijani Popular Front opposition party, who was immediately arrested after giving the statement.
The interior ministry said that 75 people were detained amid alleged damage to property and injuries to police officers, and that five of them were accused of "organising and participating in illegal actions."
But opposition leaders said around 200 people were detained.
Several protesters including a man holding a placard reading "We Want Freedom" were arrested as they attempted to rally in the square before it was cleared by police.
"The authorities must allow people to be free," one protester, Ibragim Alekperov, told AFP.
"They should look at what is happening in Libya and other such places," he said.
But a senior lawmaker from the governing party said that the small turnout at the demonstration showed that the opposition was unpopular and impotent.
"Today again showed the failure of the radical opposition," governing party lawmaker Mubariz Gurbanli told journalists after the demonstrators had been dispersed.
"We always said that the people do not support radicals," he said.
The leader of the opposition Musavat party, Isa Gambar, insisted that the protest showed that many people wanted change in Azerbaijan, which is an important supplier of oil and gas to the West.
"The authorities' repression will not achieve anything, the struggle will continue and the people are ready for this," Gambar told AFP, adding that the opposition planned to hold further rallies around the country.
The protesters were hoping to latch on to the revolts in the Arab world to launch a challenge to the authorities led by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar in 2003.
Rights group Amnesty International said that the police action showed that the authorities refused to tolerate public dissent.
"The Azerbaijani government cannot credibly maintain that it is making progress in its democratic development whilst systematically clamping down on social movements and political gatherings that it disapproves of," said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International.
Leaders of the country's two main opposition parties were summoned to Baku's main police station on Friday and warned that a rally in the city centre would not be allowed, after they refused a designated protest site on the outskirts of Baku.
Rights groups said that more than 10 activists were arrested the day before the planned demonstration, and the Musavat party said that there were further arrests in the hours leading up to the planned rally.
"It is clear that the authorities are determined to crush any attempts by opposition activists to gather peacefully," Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Pipelines from Azerbaijan take Caspian Sea oil and gas to European markets, generating huge energy revenues which have fuelled significant economic growth in recent years, amid political stability enforced by the Aliyev administration.
Opposition supporters complain of a lack of democratic rights and free speech in Azerbaijan.
But the governing party says that a discredited opposition is trying to stir up confrontation which will damage the country, and analysts believe that widespread political unrest is unlikely.
Azerbaijani police also cracked down on an opposition attempt to stage protests on two consecutive days last month, arresting around 100 people.
Source: AFP Global Edition