21 accused of forming militant group on trial in Azerbaijan

Associated Press Worldstream
September 29, 2004 Wednesday 7:13 PM Eastern Time

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Twenty-one people, some of whom prosecutors say
underwent militant training in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, went on trial
Wednesday on charges of organizing and participating in an illegal
armed group.

The 21 defendants, who were disarmed by authorities in August 2003
in an operation in the capital Baku and several other cities in
Azerbaijan, are also accused of weapons possession and creating and
using counterfeit documents.

Prosecutors say the man accused of leading the organization, Rovshan
Badalov, also fought in Russia's Chechnya region alongside rebels
in 2001-2002.

The defendants - 20 Azerbaijanis and one Georgian - say they wanted to
fight against ethnic Armenians who have controlled Nagorno-Karabakh
and surrounding areas since a cease-fire ended a six-year war over
the enclave in Azerbaijan in 1994. At the same time, all but one of
the defendants pleaded innocent Wednesday.

According to prosecutors, Badalov illegally crossed the border into
Georgia in March 2001 and led several other defendants in training in
the Pankisi Gorge that involved learning how to use weapons and maps.

Members of the group regularly crossed the Georgian-Azerbaijani border
illegally and, with the help of forged documents, also traveled to
Moscow and Turkey, according to prosecutors. However, aside from
Badalov, authorities say a preliminary investigation did not show
that the defendants fought or intended to fight in Chechnya.

Russian officials say Chechen rebels have taken refuge in the Pankisi
Gorge, and after the Sept. 11 attacks the United States initiated a
program to train Georgian forces amid concern over the presence of
fighters in the gorge that Washington said were linked to the al-Qaida
terror network.