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Air force chief shot dead

Lieutenant General Rail Rzayev, head of the Azeri Air force, was shot dead outside his house in the capital Baku on Wednesday. The motive of the shooting remains unknown.


REUTERS - The air force chief of Azerbaijan, an oil producing state in the fragile southern Caucasus region, was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, officials said.

Lieutenant General Rail Rzayev was the most senior official to have been killed in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, a country where Russia and the United States vie for influence, since the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear whether the motives for the killing were political.

"At approximately 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) at the entrance to his home the head of the air force and missile defence system was shot in the head and later died of his wounds in hospital," a source in the Interior Ministry said.

Nijmedin Sadykhov, head of the Azeri military general staff, told Azerbaijan's private Lider television security cameras in the vicinity might help in the investigation. He said he had no information on what the motive for the killing could have been.

"There was a single shot. According to preliminary information, Rzayev's car had been under surveillance for several days," he said.

The United States has warned in the past that al Qaeda could pose a threat to its embassy in Baku.

The Muslim state lies on the Caspian Sea coast and is the entrance point to a pipeline, operated by a BP-led consortium, pumping oil from Asia to Europe.

Azerbaijan has been ruled since 2003 by Ilham Aliyev, accused by some in the West of concentrating too much power in his hands. The country faces a referendum in March on the scrapping of a two-term limit on the presidency, that would allow him to remain in power after his term ends in 2013.

Azerbaijan has close ties to the United States. U.S. Air Force jets en route to Afghanistan refuel at Azerbaijan's main airport and a 90-strong Azeri military contingent has been serving in Afghanistan with NATO-led forces.

Azeri troops were also serving alongside U.S. forces in Iraq until they withdrew at the end of last year.

Azerbaijan is still technically at war with its neighbour Armenia over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenian separatists threw off Azeri control during fighting in the early 1990s.

Rzayez was the Azeri representative in stalled negotiations between Russia and the United States on use of the Qabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan.

Russia had offered Washington access to data from the Soviet-built radar station, which it leases from Azerbaijan, as an alternative to U.S. plans to station elements of its missile defence shield in eastern Europe.

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