Azerbaijan air force head murdered

11th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The killing is the most serious murder in the history of Azerbaijan's defense ministry, analyst says.

Baku -- The powerful commander of Azerbaijan's air force was shot dead outside his home Wednesday, the highest ranking military official to be killed in the oil-rich republic wedged between Russia and Iran.

Lieutenant-General Rail Rzayev, 64, was gunned down outside his home in the capital Baku as he left for work in the early morning, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior Sadiq Gozalov said.

"The general was shot and received a heavy wound to the head,” said Gozalov. “He was sent to the military hospital in Baku, where he died."

Gozalov said police were on the scene investigating and that military prosecutors would be handling the case. He said he had no information regarding a possible motive for the shooting.

Officials said his funeral would take place late Wednesday, in accordance with Muslim tradition.

Experts said the killing may have been a contract hit linked with Rzayev's role in large-scale military acquisitions Azerbaijan has made in recent years, as government coffers surged from oil revenues.

"This is the most serious murder in the history of Azerbaijan's defense ministry," said Baku-based military analyst Uzeir Jafarov. "Rzayev was the focal point for air force and air defense military acquisitions and the largest part of (Azerbaijan's) military budget is being allocated for acquisitions in these spheres."

He said he was unaware of any personal problems that may have been behind the killing.

Jafarov also said that Rzayev had no ambitions outside his role as air force chief and he doubted the killing may have been linked to an internal struggle within Azerbaijan's military.

Azerbaijan has more than quadrupled its military budget in the last five years thanks to soaring oil revenues.

But in a report last year, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said Azerbaijan's military is plagued by "widespread inefficiency, corruption and mistreatment."

The group called for more public oversight of the military, in particular over defense expenditures.

Azerbaijan is in the strategic Caucasus region, where Russia and the United States are vying for influence. The energy-rich, mainly Muslim republic is also a major energy exporter and transit hub for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan remains technically at war with neighboring Armenia over the separatist region of Nagorny Karabakh, which ethnic Armenian separatists wrested from Baku's control during a war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan has also claimed it faces a threat from radical Islamic groups and has arrested dozens of alleged extremists in recent years on charges of plotting attacks.

In 2007, Azerbaijani authorities said they had foiled a major "terrorist" attack planned against government facilities and diplomatic missions, including the American embassy.

Azerbaijan's ANS television reported that Rzayev had been the head of Azerbaijan's air force and air defense forces since 1992.

Rzayev was Azerbaijan's point man in negotiations between Russia and the United States over the use of the Gabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan.

In 2007, Russia offered to share the Gabala station, which it leases from Azerbaijan. In exchange, it wanted the US to drop its plans to deploy a radar station in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland as part of its missile defense systems.

Azerbaijan suffered from a string of high-profile assassinations in the early 1990s, including the killings of the deputy speaker of parliament and the presidential security chief in 1994.

Emil Guliyev/AFP/Expatica

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