Europe's top human rights body on Thursday pledged to closely monitor Azerbaijan's November parliamentary elections and the campaign leading up to the vote.
Mats Lindberg, a top official with the Council of Europe, told a news conference in Baku that the council was taking increased interest in the vote, which opposition parties warn could be rigged by the government of President Ilham Aliev.
He said the council's ministers last month approved proposals for changes to Azerbaijan's election laws, training for election committee workers and monitoring of political parties' finances.
Nazim Isayev, a spokesman for Aliev, said the plan appeared to include suggestions made by Azerbaijan and that the government was prepared to work with the council on implementing it.
Lindberg also praised Saturday's opposition rally, where about 10,000 protesters jammed Baku's streets and demanded the parliamentary vote be fair. Azerbaijani authorities first banned the rally, but then allowed it after the opposition parties said they would demonstrate anyway.
"I think that rally was a very positive first step and I hope that these gestures to improve the situation will continue," he said. "I also very much welcome the dialogue which has started between the political parties."
Tensions have been steadily building in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation ahead of elections, leading some observers to predict that Azerbaijan could see an uprising similar to those that toppled regimes in three other ex-Soviet nations _ Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Riots and protests erupted after the last presidential election in October 2003 in which Aliev replaced his late father, the long-ruling Geidar Aliev.
Russian small missile ships - the Grad Sviyazhsk and the Great Ustyug - set off for a mission to the Mediterranean Sea