Azerbaijan stops Iran official entering country

BAKU Tue May 29, 2012 6:58pm BST

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BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan stopped a senior Iranian official entering the country on Tuesday, Iran's embassy said on Tuesday, a move set to further sour relations between the Islamic Republic and its secular neighbour after a spat over the Eurovision Song Contest.

Tensions between the two countries has risen this year with both sides accusing the other of meddling in each other's affairs and Iran's withdrawal of its ambassador last week after clerics criticised Baku for hosting Eurovision.

"We report with great regret that the head of the culture department of Iran's Supreme Leadership ... was rejected from entering Azerbaijan on Monday," the Iranian embassy said in a statement. "It was done in an undiplomatic way."

It said the official was turned back at Baku international airport. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the most powerful figure in Iran, and senior officials working directly for him in his office wield great sway.

Azeri officials declined to comment on the decision.

Western-allied, mostly Shi'ite Muslim Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest - a flamboyant annual pageant of pop music from around Europe - was condemned by some Iranian clerics and lawmakers who referred to a "gay parade" - although no such event was planned or held.

Iran was angered by subsequent anti-Iranian protests in Baku, where demonstrators carried pictures of Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and banners reading "Azerbaijan does not need clerics-homosexuals!".

The latest dispute is part of wider diplomatic tensions between the neighbours which share a religion but have sharply different political systems.

Some 15 percent of Iranians are ethnic Azeris and there are strong linguistic and family ties straddling the border, adding another strain to ties between the two neighbours as each side fears the influence of the other on its population.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan, for its part, has arrested dozens of people this year on suspicion of connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and of plotting attacks, including on the Israeli ambassador to Baku.

Earlier on Tuesday, Azerbaijan handed over a diplomatic note to Iran asking to clarify the whereabouts of two young Azeri poets, who have allegedly been arrested in the Iranian town of Tabriz during their visit to the country earlier this month.

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Jon Hemming)

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