US 'disturbed' at Azerbaijan raiding Radio Liberty

Baku (AFP) - Azerbaijan has raided and closed the local offices of a US-funded radio station in a move that has left Washington "deeply disturbed" and raised concerns about the treatment of non-state media in the tightly-controlled Caucasus nation.

The offices of Radio Azadliq in the capital Baku were sealed on Friday after prosecutors and armed police confiscated equipment and computers during a raid, the station's director, Kenan Aliyev, told AFP on Saturday.

The station provides Azerbaijani-language programming in the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network directed at Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The radio network has its roots in a Cold War programme started by the US to counter Soviet propaganda.

"Our journalists are being summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning. We fear for our safety," Aliyev said.

"We are witnessing yet another round of the authorities' crackdown on free media."

The US State Department said it was "deeply disturbed" by the raid.

"We call on the responsible authorities to respect Azerbaijan's international commitment to protecting media freedom," said a senior State Department official.

The administration of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had no immediate comment on the action, but said a statement would be made "soon".

- Crackdown on foreign-funded groups -

The raid came after a prominent investigative reporter working for Radio Azadliq, Khadija Ismayilova, was arrested in early December and placed in pre-trial detention for two months.

Amnesty International condemned her arrest as a move to "gag free media" in Azerbaijan.

Radio Azadliq's Aliyev said, citing prosecutors, that the raid on the offices was linked to a probe into the work of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in the energy-rich country.

In recent months, Azerbaijani prosecutors have staged similar raids on other foreign-funded groups, including the Baku offices of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which was eventually shut down.

The legal assault on Radio Azadliq sparked widespread concern.

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said RFE/RL was "the latest victim of the government's campaign to stamp out media pluralism".

"President Ilham Aliyev's government is methodically crushing each of the remaining independent news outlets one by one," Johann Bihr, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the watchdog, said in a statement.

Jeff Shell, chairman of the Washington-based Broadcasting Board of Governors, a bi-partisan federal agency overseeing US international broadcasting services, said the raid was "unwarranted" and "an escalation of the Azeri government's abusive attempt to intimidate independent journalists and repress free media".

Dissent in Azerbaijan is often met with a tough government response. Rights groups say authorities have been clamping down on opponents since Aliyev's election to a third term last year.

Aliyev, 53, came to power in 2003 following a controversial election.

He took over after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and Communist-era leader who had ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.

Headquartered in Prague and funded by the US Congress, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.