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Azerbaijan Cracks Down on Political Dissent Before Pipeline Opening

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is joining foreign officials Wednesday in Azerbaijan to inaugurate a new oil pipeline largely built with U.S. financial assistance. But the event comes as the former Soviet republic tightens restrictions on political opposition.

The new pipeline will carry crude oil from Azerbaijan through the republic of Georgia and the port of Ceyhan in Turkey.

The event marks the culmination of an 11-year, $4 billion project backed by the United States in which American, British and other oil companies have a part. The pipeline should pump up to one million barrels of oil per day when it becomes fully functional in six months.

But the violent break-up of an attempted rally by various opposition groups Saturday in Azerbaijan's capital Baku has cast a shadow over the long-awaited event.

Police wielding truncheons and nightsticks beat and arrested scores of people as they tried to gather for the protest.

The Azeri authorities said the rally had not been permitted, partly because it was to be held just days before the pipeline inauguration.

The chief of the Azerjaijani division of British Petroleum, David Woodward, said he was surprised the government felt the need to prevent the protest gathering.

The U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan said the arrest and detention of members of the opposition cast doubt about the commitment of the government to hold free and fair parliamentary elections later this

Many analysts say the oil wealth flooding into the country has intensified long-standing political tensions as the general public has seen little economic gain.

Mikhail Alexandrov is an expert on Azerbaijan with the Institute for CIS or former Soviet states in Moscow.

He says outside countries are in a position to put pressure on the government.

"What Western countries do, they just close their eyes to the fact that these local authorities just get this money, and put it into Western banks,” he noted. “There must be more strong criticism from the West.”

Russia views the new pipeline with suspicion, calling it an example of increased Western geopolitical activity in its traditional sphere of influence.

American officials dispute that. As a sign of the importance Russia holds due to its vast reserves of oil and gas, Energy Secretary Bodman met this week with Russian officials, prior to heading for Azerbaijan.