By Lada Yevgrashina and Afet Mehtiyeva
BAKU, Feb 11 (Reuters) - 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)