Hundreds of thousands bid farewell to Azerbaijani strongman Aliev

By AIDA SULTANOVA, Associated Press Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Hundreds of thousands paid tribute Monday to Geidar Aliev as he was buried in a place of honor alongside his wife in the Caspian Sea capital from which he ruled oil-rich Azerbaijan for three decades.

National leaders from across the former Soviet Union and key Western countries with close ties the important oil supplier paid respects to the Aliev, who died Friday of congestive heart failure in the United States.

The former president and Soviet strongman (pictured, above) was 80 and had been hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic for months.

"I felt not only huge respect, but love for him," Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Baku. Both men were former agents of the KGB secret police and spy agency.

Azerbaijan, like four other former Soviet republics -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- all have close language and cultural ties to Turkey, which was represented at the funeral by its prime minister.

"The Turkic world has lost an outstanding individual," said Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Crowds of mourners began gathering overnight outside the Republic Palace, where Aliev's closed coffin lay in the center of a stage, draped with the red, blue and green Azerbaijani flag. It was flanked by an honor guard. Mourners pressed toward the building, and those who managed to gain entrance filed solemnly past the coffin beneath a large photograph of Aliev.

Aliev's 41-year-old son, Ilham, elected president in October in an internationally criticized vote that created the first family dynasty in the former Soviet Union, sat in the front row with his wife and children.

They and other important mourners followed as the coffin moved through the streets on a gun carriage to the tree-lined Alley of Honorable Burial. His wife and older brother both were buried there.

A minute of silence was held across the nation of 7.7 million shortly after Aliev's burial during a week of national mourning.

A one-time Communist Party stalwart, Aliev led Azerbaijan for 30 years, stifling dissent and realigning his predominantly Muslim country closer to the United States after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Baku marks the origin of a key oil pipeline running west through Georgia to Turkey, part of Washington's effort to develop an energy corridor for Caspian Sea petroleum that does not pass through Russia.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones represented the United States along with former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Aliev died at the Cleveland Clinic, where he had been taken in early August after a month at a Turkish hospital following his collapse during a televised speech in April. He had not been seen in public since July.

As a protege of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Aliev became head of Azerbaijan's KGB secret police in 1967. Two years later, he took over the Soviet republic as its Communist Party boss. In 1982, he became a full member of the Soviet Politburo, but Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ousted him in 1987 on allegations of cronyism, nepotism and high living at party expense.

Aliev made a political comeback in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, becoming parliament speaker in a government reshuffle forced by rebels fighting then-President Abulfaz Elchibey. Elchibey fled, and Aliev replaced him.

While in office, Aliev censored the news media and decorated streets with his portraits and sayings. Despite vocal opponents -- who led protests in Baku that turned violent after son Ilham Aliev's election -- the elder Aliev remained popular.

Citizens seemed relieved by the relative peace after he took power at the end of the violence of the early 1990s, when the country fought neighboring Armenia to a stalemate over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)