Two police officers were killed in what Azerbaijani officials blamed on a clash with a “radical religious group” in the country’s second city Ganja on July 10.
“Two police officers are reported to have been killed as a result of an armed attack on police officers by a group of religious radicals who attempted to disrupt public order in the country’s Ganja city on July 10. In a course of measures taken, the public order in Ganja was restored. Stability and security in the country are safely protected,” the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General's Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service said in a joint statement.
A group of 150-200 people gathered in central Ganja and launched an attack on the city’s administrative buildings, the statement said.
While the statement calls the crowd a religious group, there is no further information about the motives behind the attack, which took place a week after the much-hated Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev was shot at outside his office.
The crowd ignored orders to disperse and used blades and cutting tools to attack police, resulting in the deaths of two senior police officers, Ganja City police colonel Ilgar Balakishiyev and the deputy chief of the Nizami District police department, Samad Abbasov.
Balakishiyev was the Ganja city deputy police chief and head of the Public Order department of Ganja city police in the 1990s. He was awarded a bravery medal in 2002. He was stabbed to death by members of the angry mob.
Within half an hour, however, the police regained control of the situation, making 40 arrests and restoring order in the city.
The authorities have released the names of two men they suspect of the killings.
“Two Ganja residents – Rashad Boyukkishiyev (1988), who was previously convicted for deliberate murder and robbery, and Farrukh Gasimov (1988) were identified as suspects. Measures are underway for their detention,” the police and security services said in a statement.
Police in Azerbaijan released the photos of Rashad Boyukkishiyev and Farrukh Gasimov as the prime suspects in the killing of two policemen during a riot in the regional city of Ganja
Several criminal cases have already been launched, and the police are investigating to ensure that all participants and organisers of the riot are identified and brought to justice, the statement said.
One of the suspects was arrested late on July 11, according to a later statement from the interior ministry.
Police previously arrested a 35-year-old Russian citizen, Yunis Safarov, at the scene of Valiyev’s shooting, in which both the mayor and his bodyguard were injured.
Azerbaijani law enforcement authorities view the attack as a premeditated terrorist attack, which they say was aimed at creating chaos in the country as a precursor to a violent seizure of power, Vedomosti reported.
However, the authorities have kept a tight lid on reporting of Valiyev’s shooting in a country where the media is under strict supervision. 14 people have been sentenced to short prison sentences of between 10 and 30 days simply for discussing the shooting and a nationwide power blackout that occurred on the same day on social media.
In the past, Baku has often exaggerated accusations of religious terrorism to go after actors that the government deemed inconvenient or that were in conflict with the state on various grounds. A secular state, Azerbaijan is nevertheless socially conservative and the majority of its population identify as Shi'a Muslim. Neighbouring Iran has long been accused of sponsoring fundamentalist groups in the country.
Last October, Azerbaijani security officers killed three suspected terrorists and confiscated artisanal explosives during a raid in the capital Baku.
The country has also seen several larger-scale political and anti-corruption protests in the last year. Several took place in the autumn following the "Laundromat" revelations initially in The Guardian that the government allegedly used as much as $2.9bn channelled into a slush fund to bribe influential foreign individuals and finance luxury purchases for the elite. Thousands of Azerbaijanis also came out onto the streets to protest President Ilham Aliyev’s latest landslide re-election in April, saying it was rigged.
The authorities are said to be nervous, especially in the context of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution where mass demonstrations overthrew the government and installed Nikol Pashinian as the “people’s prime minister” in May. Since then Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the prime minister of Georgia was also forced to resign after he was unable to quell two weeks of street protests in June.