Baku - Azeri police used tear gas and water cannon on Thursday to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding the resignation of a regional leader, after cars were torched and a hotel set ablaze in a night of rioting.
Nizami Alekperov, Ismailli regional governor, has defied the protesters' demands but complaints about wages, unemployment and oppressive government in the oil-producer may send a worrying signal to President Ilham Aliyev in an election year.
Reuters television footage showed at least one building on fire and the burning carcasses of vehicles set ablaze by up to 3,000 rioters on Wednesday night in the town of Ismailli, 200 km (125 miles) northwest of Baku.
Witnesses said hundreds of protesters surrounded the governor's residence on Thursday, shaking their fists and chanting “Resignation! Resignation!”
“We are tired of unemployment, poverty and an atmosphere of fear,” one protester, who declined to be identified, told the Azeri Turan news agency.
Turan quoted witnesses as saying the protests ended only after tear gas and water cannon were used.
Police, who brought in reinforcements to deal with the demonstration, said some of their number and some protesters were injured.
Residents of Ismailli have complained for years about corruption, an overbearing local government, and an increasing divide between rich and poor.
Young Azeri opposition activists spread a message via Facebook on Thursday calling for a Baku protest in support of Ismailli residents on Friday.
Police usually move in swiftly to quash protests which are rare outside of Baku, capital of the U.S. ally nation located on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran.
The former Soviet republic supplies oil and gas to Europe and serves as a transit hub for U.S. troops based in Afghanistan - a role its critics say limits Western powers' willingness to sanction Azerbaijan for human rights abuses.
The Ismailli riot started as a brawl involving a local hotel owner who crashed his car, and rapidly spiralled into a riot involving up to 3,000 people, according to a Reuters witness and Turan.
The rioters mobbed the driver's hotel, setting fire to it and torching cars in the courtyard, before moving to the home of Alekperov's son, where a car and two motorcycles were set ablaze.
Speaking to journalists, Alekperov said he would not step down.
“I won't resign on the demands of five or 10 people ... It's inadmissible to make a political conflict out of a car accident and a quarrel between two people,” Alekperov told reporters. - Reuters