Thousands of protesters marched through Azerbaijan's capital on Wednesday, answering a call by the main opposition movement to go into the streets to defend their right to free and fair elections.The march was the first test of the opposition's ability to mobilize supporters following last weekend's flawed parliamentary elections, and the movement hoped it would generate unstoppable momentum. About 15,000 people took part in the 3-kilometer (2-mile) march, short of the 30,000-50,000 the opposition had hoped to assemble.
Opposition leaders and foreign observers have said the weekend vote did not meet democratic standards.
Sardar Jalalogli, a top official in the Democratic Party, said the opposition would give the government a chance to correct its mistakes.
"If the people's will is not fulfilled ... we will go into the streets with a total demand for (the government's) resignation," he told the cheering crowd, which consisted almost completely of men. The rally, which authorities limited to three hours, was likely to provide several gauges of how the political climate will develop in this oil-rich, strategically located nation: how many supporters the opposition can marshal, whether their anger explodes into confrontation with police and how harshly security forces respond.
Protesters walked down a four-lane road, closed off to traffic, under a sea of orange flags - a color they borrowed from Ukraine's successful Orange Revolution. A few Ukrainian flags could be seen, as well as one Russian one - decorated with an orange sticker and a picture of a carnation, the Azerbaijani opposition's symbol.
Earlier, protesters blew horns, giving the protest a carnival atmosphere. One sign read: "President Bush, don't fail us now!" Another poster demanded: "Stop trading our democracy for oil."
The opposition fears that the United States' interest in Azerbaijan's energy riches will trump its stated commitment to expanding democracy around the world. Azerbaijan is the starting point for an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean, a project Washington strongly backed as a way of reducing dependence on Middle East oil. A.M.
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