By Lada Yevgrashina and Afet Mehtiyeva
BAKU Feb 11 The air force chief of Azerbaijan
was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, a crime the
president of the oil producing state lodged between Russia and
Iran said looked like a bid to sow political instability.
Lieutenant-General Rail Rzayev was the most senior official
to have been killed since a series of assassinations in the
1990s that were blamed by the authorities on organised crime or
attempts to undermine the government.
Both Russia and the United States view for influence in
mainly Muslim ex-Soviet Azerbaijan.
At an emergency meeting with law-enforcement chiefs,
President Ilham Aliyev compared the killing to past "efforts to
create a strained political situation in Azerbaijan".
He said the investigation had already yielded its first
results, but gave no details.
"At approximately 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) at the entrance to his
home the head of the air force and missile defence system was
shot in the head and later died of his wounds in hospital," a
source in the Interior Ministry said.
Nijmedin Sadykhov, head of the Azeri military general staff,
told Azerbaijan's private Lider television that security cameras
in the vicinity of Rzayev's home in an upmarket area to the west
of Baku's centre, might help the investigation.
"There was a single shot. According to preliminary
information, Rzayev's car had been under surveillance for
several days," he said. Officials said his funeral will be later
on Wednesday, in accordance with Muslim tradition.
Fuelled by oil export revenues, Azerbaijan's economy in
recent years has been one of the world's fastest growing and oil
cash has been used to boost military spending.
But a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis
Group last year said corruption within the Azeri military was a
problem, particularly in supply and procurement.
"A lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight of
tenders for military construction and food and other
purchases for the army allows inflated prices and proxy
companies to receive preferential treatment," the report said.
Azerbaijan saw a series of high-level murders in the 1990s,
with victims including the deputy speaker of parliament. In the
past few years, a small number of prosecutors and police
officials have also been murdered.
In the past decade Azerbaijan has arrested dozens of people
suspected of belonging to militant Islamist groups, and in 2007
it said it foiled a plot by Islamists to stage an armed attack
on the U.S. embassy in Baku.
Azerbaijan lies on the Caspian Sea coast and is the entrance
point to a pipeline, operated by a BP-led (BP.L) consortium,
pumping oil from Asia to Europe.
It has been run since 2003 by President Aliyev, accused by
some in the West of concentrating too much power in his hands.
The country will vote in a referendum in March on the
scrapping of a two-term limit on the presidency, that could
allow Aliyev to run for office after his term ends in 2013.
Azerbaijan has close ties to the United States. U.S. Air
Force aircraft en route to Afghanistan refuel at Azerbaijan's
main airport and a 90-strong Azeri military contingent has been
serving in Afghanistan with NATO-led forces.
Azeri troops were also serving alongside U.S. forces in Iraq
until they withdrew at the end of last year.
Azerbaijan is still technically at war with its neighbour
Armenia over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where
ethnic Armenian separatists threw off Azeri control during
fighting in the early 1990s.
Rzayev was the Azeri representative in stalled negotiations
between Russia and the United States on use of the Qabala radar
station in northern Azerbaijan.
Russia had offered Washington access to data from the
Soviet-built radar station, which it leases from Azerbaijan, as
an alternative to U.S. plans to station elements of its missile
defence shield in eastern Europe.
(Writing by James Kilner in Moscow; Editing by Matthew Jones)