BAKU (Reuters) - Azeri police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding a local leader’s resignation on Thursday after cars and a hotel were torched in a night of rioting.
Mass protests are rare in the oil-producing former Soviet republic and the crowds’ complaints about wages, unemployment and oppressive government may send a worrying signal to autocratic President Ilham Aliyev in an election year.
Reuters footage showed at least one building on fire and the burning carcasses of vehicles set ablaze by rioters on Wednesday night in the town of Ismaili, 200 km (125 miles) northwest of the capital Baku.
Police said protesters and police were injured and reinforcements brought in from outside the town to help restore order. Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency quoted witnesses as saying the protests ended only after tear gas and water cannon were used.
The rioting began after a hotel owner drove his car into an electricity pole and got into a fight with a driver whose vehicle was parked nearby, witnesses said.
Dozens of other people were then sucked into the brawl and police intervention failed to cool tempers.
About 3,000 went to the driver’s hotel, set fire to it and torched cars in the courtyard, before moving on to the home of regional governor Nizami Alekperov’s son, where a car and two motorcycles were set ablaze.
Witnesses said the protesters surrounded the governor’s residence on Thursday and, shaking their fists, chanted: “Resignation! Resignation!”
“We are annoyed with unemployment, poverty and an atmosphere of fear,” one resident, who declined to be identified, told Turan.
There were no other political demands at the protest, the witnesses said. They added that some protesters believed a relative of the Alekperovs might have been involved in the incident that led to the rioting.
Squeezed in the Caucasus region between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan supplies Caspian oil and gas to Europe and serves as a transit hub for U.S. troops based in Afghanistan - a role its critics say limits Western powers’ willingness to sanction Azerbaijan for human rights abuses.
Signs of public dissent are unusual in the mainly Muslim nation of nine million people on the Caspian Sea, and police usually move in swiftly to break up any protests.
Police used force to disperse a protest last March in the town of Quba, 170 km (100 miles) north of Baku, when residents gathered in the central square to demand the resignation of the mayor, whom they accused of exceeding his authority.
Opposition protests usually end in arrests.
Western governments and human rights groups accuse Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of rigging elections and of trying to crush dissent, notably in 2011 during a series of protests in the capital inspired by the Arab Spring.
Aliyev is widely expected to be re-elected in a presidential election in October and the government says Azerbaijan enjoys full freedom of speech and has a vibrant opposition press.
Writing by Margarita Antidze, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Roche