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US Disturbed By Pre-Election Moves by Azerbaijan

The U.S. State Department says it is disturbed by arrests this week of opposition activists in Azerbaijan, but that it is not too late for that Caspian-basin country to have credible elections November 6. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Fried met Thursday with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and with opposition politicians in Baku.

The degree of U.S. concern about Azerbaijan was underlined by the mission of Assistant Secretary Fried, who met government and opposition politicians Thursday and delivered a university speech exhorting all parties to work to make the country a full democracy.

Azerbaijanis are to elect a new 125 member parliament November 6. The current parliament is dominated by supporters of President Aliyev, who succeeded his father as president in 2003 in an election marred by fraud charges.

There has been Western criticism of the current campaign, which intensified this week with the reported detention of as many 200 opposition activists including several parliamentary candidates, and alleged harassment of journalists.

The Baku office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Wednesday expressed deep concern about the developments, which it said were inconsistent with a decree by Mr. Aliyev in May pledging an election in line with international standards.

The State Department added its concerns Thursday. At a news briefing, Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S, officials have seen both encouraging, and negative steps by the government in the run-up to the vote, but said the latest events show that there is much work still to be done to achieve a free, fair election.

"We are disturbed by steps the government took this week including mass detentions, detention of some candidates as you point out, the restriction of media access for opposition candidates, and deployment of security forces, and these actions raise questions about the government's commitment to a democratic campaign,"

Assistant Secretary Fried, who earlier visited Armenia and Georgia, arrived in Baku late Wednesday and held a series of separate meetings Thursday with Azerbaijani non-governmental groups, opposition politicians, and with senior government officials including President Aliyev.

Mr. Fried's visit came amid a tumultuous week in Azerbaijani politics which began with the aborted return to the country Monday of exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev, and a cabinet shakeup by President Aliyev.

In a telephone conference call with State Department reporters from Baku, Mr. Fried said it was unclear whether Mr. Guliyev had been barred from returning by Azerbaijani authorities or made a last-minute decision himself not to return to Baku, where he faces embezzlement charges.

But Mr. Fried said he told President Aliyev the affair only underscores the necessity of having an election that is accepted both at home and abroad as credible.

"Given the wide-spread doubts, doubts that have become considerably more acute after the Guliyev business and after the dismissal of the ministers, the burden is really on the government to demonstrate that the election is fee and fair, and you've got 17 days to try to make, to try to set this good impression," he said.

In a policy speech at Baku State University, Mr. Fried said free and fair parliamentary elections are within Azerbaijan's grasp and that achieving the goal is the responsibility of all the country's citizens.

He said amid the events of recent days the government has an obligation to demonstrate its commitment to a free and fair vote. At the same time he said opposition figures, whom he suggested have been prone to extreme rhetoric, have an obligation to seek votes through open and honest debate.

The State Department envoy also expressed hope a freely-elected parliament will work with President Aliyev to tackle corruption, a problem he said could become more acute as the country accumulates oil wealth, and revenue from new oil and gas pipelines crossing its territory from the Caspian region.