BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) – About 10,000 opposition protesters chanted “Freedom!” and carried pictures of President Bush as they marched across Azerbaijan’s capital Saturday, urging the government of this U.S. ally to step down and allow free parliamentary elections this year.

The massive rally in Baku was the largest opposition demonstration in the former Soviet republic since October 2003, when one person died and nearly 200 were injured in clashes between police and demonstrators protesting vote-rigging in the presidential election.

Tensions have been building steadily in this oil-rich Caspian Sea nation in the run-up to parliamentary elections set for November, leading some observers to predict that Azerbaijan could see a massive uprising similar to those that toppled unpopular regimes in other ex-Soviet nations of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan during the past 18 months.

Supporters of several opposition parties chanted “Freedom!” and “Free Elections!” while holding placards with such slogans as “Down with robber government!” Some carried a picture of Bush with the inscription: “We want freedom!”

The rally was intended to draw attention to the opposition’s push for election law reforms and access to state-controlled television. The opposition parties have accused authorities of rigging the October 2003 presidential election when President Ilham Aliev succeeded his late father, Geidar Aliev, and demanded changes to prevent fraud in the parliamentary vote.

“Not only the opposition, but all people need democratic changes,” Ali Kerimli, leader of the People’s Front of Azerbaijan, said at the rally. “We demand free elections, and if the conditions for the free elections are not created, every village, every bloc will demand the government’s resignation.”

Opposition leader Panakh Huseinli said Aliev’s government would not allow free elections – to its own peril.

“The Aliyev regime will never allow free elections, and it will mean its end,” Huseinli said. “The revolution is inevitable.”

About 400 police in full riot gear stood guard around a central square where protesters gathered, but they did not intervene and the rally ended peacefully.

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich, mostly Muslim country of 8.3 million, is the starting point of the key pipeline that Washington says will reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East. The country also is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, with troops in Iraq.

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