Azerbaijan's former economic development minister has been arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup in the oil-rich country, officials said Thursday, two weeks ahead of national elections. At least one other minister was sacked.
President Ilham Aliev dismissed Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliev on Wednesday. Aliev, no relation to the president, was arrested the same day and charged with conspiring with exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev to incite unrest and seize power, authorities said.
He was also charged with embezzlement, abuse of office and misappropriation of funds, prosecutors said. He was not immediately available for comment.
Guliyev, a former parliament speaker who faces charges of misappropriating state funds, tried to return Monday to rally opposition support ahead of Nov. 6 parliamentary elections. But he was detained in Ukraine during a refueling stop and held on a warrant from Interpol. Ukraine freed Guliyev on Thursday.
Authorities have pleaded to arrest him if he returns to Azerbaijan, a country of strategic importance to the West because it is the starting point for a pipeline that is to bring Caspian Sea oil to Western markets.
Opposition parties have been holding rallies in the capital, Baku, nearly every weekend, accusing the government of plotting to rig the elections, and police have violently broken up recent attempts to defy a ban on downtown protests.
Authorities are concerned that Azerbaijan could see a mass uprising similar to those that followed elections in other post-Soviet states over the past two years, including Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
The president also dismissed Health Minister Ali Insanov and chief of staff Akif Muradverdiyev on Thursday. Police searched the homes of Insanov and Education Minister Misir Mardanov, according to a law enforcement official, who declined to be identified.
Mardanov and Labor Minister Ali Nagiyev were also sacked, the Interfax news agency reported, citing an unnamed official. It could not be immediately confirmed.
Prosecutors opened the case against Aliev after questioning former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, who was detained Monday as police rounded up opposition supporters ahead of Guliyev's scheduled arrival, a government statement said.
Yusifov allegedly told investigators that Guliyev had instructed him to contact Aliev and others to propose they help finance a coup, the statement said, AP reports.