Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, speaks during a panel session on the first day of the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott)
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A minor car accident in a town in central Azerbaijan spiraled into a showdown Thursday between residents and regional authorities, exposing underlying tensions and democratic shortcomings in the oil-rich former Soviet nation.
Hundreds of angry demonstrators in Ismayilli, some 175 kilometers (110 miles) from the capital, Baku, surrounded a regional government building Thursday demanding the governor's resignation after a night of rioting in which a hotel and several cars were torched.
Independent news agency Turan reporter Aziz Kerimov told The Associated Press from Ismayilli that police deployed tear gas and water cannons at half-hour intervals as the crowd refused to disperse.
Some in the crowd responded to police appeals to free the area by throwing rocks. Between 10 and 15 people were detained by early afternoon, Kerimov said.
He said people in the crowd said they wanted to repeat the scenario that played out in another town last year, when a regional official was forced to step down in the wake of violent clashes.
The rioting Wednesday night does not appear to have been politically motivated, but it highlights widespread frustrations over the deep disparity between the poor and wealthy. Business is often perceived in Azerbaijan as operating in intimate collusion with the government, which opposition activists argue is riddled with corruption.
Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 139th out of 176 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perception Index. Opposition parties and independent journalists are routinely harassed by the authorities.
Baku has in recent years become a glamorous playground for the country's elite, but oil revenue is unevenly distributed among the mainly Muslim country's 9 million people, and average monthly salaries stand around $450.
An ostentatious display of wealth and aggressive, arrogant behavior among well-connected individuals is commonplace across resource-rich former Soviet republics and engenders much bitterness. That appears to have served as the spark for the unrest in Ismayilli, a hill resort town of 15,000 people.
Trouble began when the owner of a local hotel, 22-year-old Emil Shamsaddinov, reacted to his Chevrolet Camaro sports car veering onto a sidewalk and colliding with an electricity pole by getting into a fight with another motorist, who was parked by the side of the road in a Soviet-era car.
It is unclear whether Shamsaddinov held the other driver responsible for the crash. Police say Shamsaddinov may have been drunken driving.
Shamsaddinov berated and swore at onlookers nearby, prompting an angry reaction from Ismayilli residents.
The dispute spiraled, leading to around 3,000 residents raiding Shamsaddinov's Chyrag hotel and setting alight several of his cars, which included the Camaro, a Chevrolet Niva and a Hummer. Police say the rampage lasted around four hours.
Shamsaddinov and his passenger have been arrested, police said.
In amateur video of burning vehicles and buildings uploaded to the Internet, people in the crowd are heard laughing and cheering.
The crowd then moved on to the house of the son of the Ismayilli district chief where they set fire to a Toyota Land Cruiser and two motorcycles.
U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijan service cited local residents as saying Shamsaddinov's hotel was being used for prostitution and that local authorities had failed to heed requests for it to be closed.
This is the second major instance of public disorder in the authoritarian former Soviet nation in only a few days.
On Saturday, market traders blocked a highway 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside Baku and clashed with riot police in a spontaneous protest over increased rent for their stalls.
A week before that, in Baku itself, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in a central square in protest at the death earlier this month of a military conscript. It was broken up by police.
That rally was organized through social media, rather than by the established opposition parties, an indication that opposition to the government is increasingly being propelled by grass-roots activism.
Authorities are particularly anxious about any signs of public discontent in view of this October's presidential election, which is expected to see incumbent Ilham Aliyev retain his iron grip over the Caspian Sea nation.
The events in Ismayilli are highly unusual, but not unparalleled. Authorities were compelled in March to dispatch special forces to quell unrest in the town of Quba amid demands for the resignation of a provincial governor.
The official eventually did step down, which many argue created a precedent for direct street action in a nation where genuine democracy is sorely underdeveloped. Regional officials are appointed by the president, who on Thursday was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
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