U.S., Norway protest over tense Azeri region

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* Rights groups allege crackdown on Muslim worshippers

* Embassies says diplomats threatened, denied access

BAKU, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The United States and Norway called on authorities in Azerbaijan on Thursday to investigate what rights groups say was a police crackdown on Muslim worshippers in a remote region bordering Iran.

In a joint statement, the U.S. and Norwegian embassies in Baku said their diplomats had been prevented from entering the village of Bananiyar in the Nakhchivan autonomous republic on Wednesday by a group of people who verbally threatened them.

Rights groups accuse police in Nakhchivan, geographically separate from the rest of Azerbaijan and bordering Iran, of beating and arresting dozens of worshippers in the village after they observed the Shi'ite mourning day of Ashura on Dec. 27.

The embassies said they had "raised with the government of Azerbaijan concerns about the situation" in the village.

"We jointly call upon the government to fully investigate the incidents ... and to provide protection for foreign diplomats working in Azerbaijan," the statement said.

Oil-producing Azerbaijan, a tightly-controlled former Soviet republic, is mainly Shi'ite Muslim -- like Iran -- but the government is strongly secular.

Analysts say the government is uneasy at what it believes is the growing influence of Islam and the perceived threat posed to its grip on power and the country's oil and gas wealth. Vying with Russia for access to Azeri energy reserves, the West is not usually quick to criticise.

The independent Turan news agency said that police kept the village in lockdown for several days last week, that five people remain in custody and a police post continues to control access to the village.

The authorities deny any crackdown took place, blaming opposition activists for inciting unrest.

Critics accuse authorities under hardline President Ilham Aliyev -- frequently criticised by rights groups for curbing freedoms -- of exerting pressure on the Islamic community, including closing a number of mosques.

Rights groups say villagers in Bananiyar marked Ashura in the traditional manner by beating their heads and chests to mourn the death of the revered Shi'ite martyr Imam Hussein.

Azeri authorities in recent years have discouraged the traditional Ashura bloodletting and said worshippers instead should donate blood to help the sick.

(Reporting and writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Roddy)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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