Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev has fired two regional officials accused of fraud during disputed parliamentary elections held last weekend. The regional governors were ousted as international criticism of the elections grows and protesters answering calls from political opposition are mounting huge protests in the capital, Baku.
Thousands of protesters waving orange flags chanted "freedom" and "Aliyev go," during the first opposition rally since Sunday's flawed parliamentary election that ruling party authorities say reconfirmed the controlling majority of President Aliyev's New Azerbaijan party.
The protest was called by the main opposition bloc, Azadliq or Freedom, and the smaller Yes party. But it was a rare display of unity among the long-fractured and under-funded opposition, with scores of leaders from disparate parties coming together as one.
Faced with mounting public protest, President Aliev Wednesday sacked two regional officials accused of fraud in connection with Sunday's elections. The two regional governors are the first officials to be punished.
In Baku, a massive police presence with forces in full riot-gear stood watch from all approaches to the Victory Square, as well as from nearby rooftops. But fiery opposition leader Ali Kerimli, who heads Azerbaijan's Popular Front Party, says the people have already shown they will not be intimidated.
Mr. Kerimli told opposition supporters their presence at Wednesday's rally proves their hearts are brave. And he says the eyes of Europe and the United States will take note and see that ordinary Azeris are ready to fight for their votes.
He says the protesters also demonstrate that they know the difference between truth and lies and that, above all, he says Azerbaijan is ready for democracy.
The crowd responded to his words with the chant, "tents to the square," meaning they are prepared to emulate the people of Ukraine who camped on Kiev's central square for weeks to protest electoral fraud.
One elderly lady, a composer, said she for one will be there. She said she has joined the opposition cause after five years of writing to members of the previous parliament to no avail. The woman said the lawmakers never once bothered to answer her letters or any concerns of ordinary Azeri people. She said it is amazing to her that the same people have been re-elected when, in her words, they have done nothing for the nation or its people.
The head of the opposition Musavat Party, Isa Gambar, who the opposition maintains really won the fraudulent presidential elections of 2003 claimed by Ilham Aliyev, told the crowd that the authorities are trying to steal the opposition's votes, just like they have stolen the country's wealth. Mr. Gambar said the authorities would like everyone to believe that they won last weekend's elections. But, he said, everyone knows they lost.
The opposition's case was significantly strengthened after the United States, European Union, Council of Europe, and independent election monitors criticized the elections as undemocratic.
Wednesday's protest ended peacefully, as opposition demonstrators did not overstay their three-hour permit. It is the first rally in weeks that has not been disrupted by violence between police and the opposition.
The opposition had wanted to hold another rally on Thursday, but the government denied the request. Instead, the president's ruling party will occupy the square for an apparent victory party.