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Azerbaijan insists European Games safe despite violence

March 28, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Azerbaijan insists its hosting of the European Games in June will be safe despite clashes over the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region last week which left at least three dead.

Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia, which backs the separatists, have remained technically at war since a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Azerbaijan foreign ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev told The Associated Press in e-mailed comments that the games would not be affected by the fighting, pointing out that the region affected is more than 400 kilometers from the venues and that fighting is confined to the separatist region.

He added that “safety and a peaceful environment for both the athletes competing in the Games and for the spectators in attendance will be provided.”

The defense ministry of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region said three of its soldiers were killed and another four were wounded last week while repelling an Azerbaijani incursion.

It said an unspecified number of Azerbaijani invaders were killed during the clash, which lasted about two hours. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, in turn, blamed the Armenian side for the clash and claimed that 20 Armenian soldiers were killed or wounded. The conflicting claims couldn’t be independently verified.

Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian soldiers and local ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire that ended a six-year war.

Earlier this month, the Armenian Olympic Committee said it would participate in the European Games, with head Gagik Tsarukyan saying the decision to compete was “based on sporting reasons alone.”

He added “it is important to keep sport independent from politics.”

Hajiyev declined to detail specific security measures which will be used to protect the capital Baku during the June 12-28 games.

“In accordance with the international procedures and standards designed for such large-scale sport events all necessary safety, security and civil emergency measures are being undertaken by the relevant authorities of Azerbaijan,” he said.

Protests during the games will not be allowed unless they take place within a specified venue with the permission of the authorities, he added.

Hajiyev said that it is a “well known principle that one’s freedom should not come at the expense of others and mutual respect shall always be prevailed.”

“Beyond specified venues, deliberate attempts to disrupt the traffic and public transport and affect daily routine of others particularly during the large scale events is inappropriate,” he added.

Azerbaijani politics is dominated by the ruling party of President Ilham Aliyev and large-scale protests are rare.

Azerbaijan has hosted an increasing number of international events in recent years and is due to host a Formula One Grand Prix from next year.

However, Baku has yet to host a multi-sports event on the scale of the inaugural European Games, which are likely to include around 6,000 athletes in 20 sports. Azerbaijan failed in bids to host the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

As well as the separatist conflict, Islamist terrorism has been a sporadic security threat in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, although attacks are rare. In 2007, a grenade attack on a mosque left three dead.

Update hourly