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US Urges Investigation of Azerbaijani Election Fraud Charges

The United States Monday urged Azerbaijani authorities to investigate what the State Department said were major irregularities and allegations of fraud in Sunday's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. U.S. officials say the effect on bilateral relations will depend on the degree to which authorities in Baku are responsive to the fraud charges.

U.S. officials are not accusing the Azerbaijani government of President Ilham Aliyev of the outright theft of the election. But they do say the problems were serious and require immediate investigations in accordance with the country's election laws.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said U.S. diplomats who monitored the voting concur with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers, who gave their critical assessment of the election process in a report earlier Monday.

"The United States shares the view of the OSCE that the parliamentary elections did not meet international standards, and that, while there was some improvement over previous elections, there were still major irregularities and allegations of fraud and that those allegations need to be addressed through investigations by the government of Azerbaijan that are consistent with Azeri law, pursuant to Azeri law, and answer the outstanding questions that people have," he said.

Nearly-complete official vote tallies showed President Aliyev's ruling party headed to a sweeping victory, prompting bitter protests from opposition leaders who called for a mass protest Wednesday.

Spokesman Ereli urged the Baku government to allow the demonstrations to go forward legally, while urging both sides to avoid violence.

The United States had expressed concern before the election about problems with voter registration lists, the use of government money for partisan purposes, curbs on freedom of assembly and mass detentions of opposition activists.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried went to Azerbaijan late last month to raise those issues directly with President Aliyev and other officials.

In comments to reporters Monday, Mr. Fried said the election was flawed but that the problems were not nationwide and than in some localities the vote went smoothly.

The assistant secretary said while some opposition candidates appeared to have lost races because of irregularities, two U.S.-supported exit polls suggest the ruling party would still have won, though with a reduced majority.

Mr. Fried said President Aliyev's commitment Monday to look into the Western criticism of the election is useful, and that he does seem to be somewhat responsive.

Spokesman Ereli said the U.S.-Azerbaijani relations and dialogue on key issues such as energy, counter-terrorism and regional security will continue but said how the Baku government responds to the election problems will obviously have an impact on the relationship.

A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here cited the plunge in U.S. relations with Uzbekistan after Uzbek President Islam Karimov spurned appeals from the United States and elsewhere for a international inquiry into last May's political violence in the city of Andijan.

The diplomat said if Azerbaijani President Aliyev believes he can go the way of Mr. Karimov and ignore the election criticism without paying a diplomatic price, it would be a serious miscalculation.