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Azeri Government Thwarts a Putsch Linked to Oil Deal

Civil unrest comes on heels of a controversial pact Baku signed with Western consortium to explore Caspian Sea

AZERBAIJAN'S President Gaidar Aliyev yesterday announced that an attempted palace coup against him had failed, apparently ending days of tension that threatened to thwart a recently signed $7-billion oil deal with Western investors.

In a speech broadcast on national television, President Aliyev told a crowd of thousands he had called to support him outside the presidential palace in the capital of Baku that the political crisis in the Transcaucasian state was over.

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``I chose the path of making the use of all my means and experience in order to overcome these difficulties by peaceful means alone,'' he said. ``I am very pleased that these measures produced results and that we have now eliminated the tension.''

Interior Ministry officials announced later that government troops had reclaimed the airport and other buildings in the city of Gyandzha, about 188 miles northwest of Baku. Gyandzha is the power base of Prime Minister Suret Guseinov, whom Aliyev has accused of masterminding the coup against him. Mr. Guseinov denies the charges.

What started the trouble

The drama began late last month after the double-murder of two men close to Aliyev - Deputy Parliament Speaker Afiyaddin Jalilov and security chief Shamsi Ragimov - and the escape from prison of a number of Aliyev's opponents.

The two men were killed less than two weeks after Azerbaijani officials signed on Sept. 20 a deal worth an estimated $7 billion with a consortium of Western partners, including Amoco Corporation, Statoil, and British Petroleum, to explore three oil fields in the Caspian Sea. The deal is due to be ratified by parliament this month.

The unprecedented deal has enraged Moscow, as it may break a long-held Russian monopoly on transport routes by shipping oil through Turkey. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said Moscow will not recognize the deal, on the grounds that Azerbaijan does not have exclusive rights to the Caspian Sea oil fields.

Farkhad Agamaliev, press secretary of the Azeri mission in Moscow, said it was no coincidence that the recent events happened so soon after the deal was signed.

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``There are certain destructive forces within the republic which are backed by certain money and people who are crazy with a thirst for power,'' he told the Monitor. ``They see that the situation is being normalized ... and that the world community has finally paid attention to the situation in unlucky Azerbaijan, and of course they don't like it. The chain of mutinies, explosions, and murders has begun.''

Who has a stake

But Aliyev has also blamed foreign groups for what he called a coup attempt, although he did not specify if he was referring to Russia, Iran, or Armenia, all of whom have a stake in Azerbaijan's future.

``In Gyandzha there are those forces, from abroad and within, who have exploited the difficult situation in the country,'' he said in a second speech at the palace. ``They are trying to engineer a coup dtat.''

On Sunday, anti-Aliyev troops took Public Prosecutor Ali Umarov hostage in an apparent attempt to hinder authorities from bringing the assassins of Aliyev's two close aides to justice.

Mr. Umarov was released the next day, but his kidnappers later skirmished with government troops on the outskirts of Baku.

On Monday, Aliyev declared a 60-day state of emergency following Umarov's kidnapping, and later deployed hundreds of government troops and 15 tanks around the compound where Prime Minister Guseinov's men were stationed.

Despite the violence, several foreign firms involved in the Caspian Sea deal have stated they will not abandon the project. Indeed, Azerbaijan has also been involved in a bloody war with neighboring Armenia over the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave for years.

Original plans for the oil deal were initialed by Azerbaijan's former president, Abulfaz Elchibey, who lost power in a rebellion led by Guseinov. Aliyev, a former KGB official and Soviet Politburo member, took power without popular mandate following Mr. Elchibey's ouster.

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