BAKU, Azerbaijan – A gunman fatally shot Azerbaijan’s air force chief outside his home on Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said.
Azerbaijan’s chief military prosecutor, speaking from the rain-soaked site of the shooting of Lt. Gen. Rail Rzayev’s home in the capital, Baku, said authorities did not know the motive.
Rzayev’s driver told investigators both men were outside the general’s home and the driver was throwing bag of garbage away at the request of his boss when he heard a gunshot, according to prosecutor Khanlar Veliyev. It appeared Rzayev died of a single gunshot wound to the head, Veliyev said .
Veliyev said investigators were looking at security-camera footage from the home and searching the area for clues, but were hampered by heavy rains that fell overnight.
Rzayev, 63, was a longtime Soviet military officer who became head of Azerbaijan’s air force shortly after the country gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse.
As air-defense forces chief, he had represented Azerbaijan in talks with Russia and the U.S. on Moscow’s 2007 proposal to make a Soviet-built radar station in Azerbaijan part of a joint missile shield to protect against a potential threat from Iran.
The Kremlin’s proposal failed to persuade the U.S. administration to abandon plans for missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russian officials contend are actually aimed to weaken their country.
Moscow uses the Gabala station as part of its early-warning system. It is renting it until at least 2012, but is building a radar station in southern Russia as a potential alternative once that expires.
Located between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is a crucial link in Western efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy exports and a target in Moscow’s tug-of-war with the United States over regional influence.
The United States and European Union have cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan because of its oil riches and its location on an energy export route bypassing Russia and Iran, and Azerbaijan is one of the few mostly Muslim countries that have sent troops to Iraq. But the U.S. and Europe have expressed concern over government treatment of opponents and independent media under President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his long-ruling father in 2003 after an election the opposition said was rigged.
Tension remains high with neighboring Armenia 15 years after a cease-fire in a war that left Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh territory in ethnic Armenian hands. Ruled for most of the past 15 years by members of a single family, Azerbaijan has a rich history of alleged coup plots and political machinations.