Azeri opposition holds rally as economy slows

BAKU, April 5 (Reuters) - About 1,000 Azeris held a rally on Sunday to protest against rising prices and a crackdown on human rights as economic problems mount ahead of a parliamentary election this year in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.

Hit by the fall in global oil prices, the rouble's drop against the dollar in neighbouring Russia and the separatist war in east Ukraine, the South Caucasus country devalued the manat currency in February.

With hardship growing before November's poll, some discontent has already emerged in the mainly Muslim country of 9 million, which has been under the firm rule of President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father as president in 2003.

Human rights groups accuse it of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies.

The rally, which was sanctioned by authorities and organised by the National Council, a group of main opposition parties, was held at a stadium on the outskirts of the capital Baku.

"We should force the government to hold economic reforms," said Ali Kerimli, the head of an opposition Popular Front, addressing the crowd. "That's why we should express our protest and hold regular rallies."

Protesters chanted "Freedom!", "Resignation!".

Two weeks ago, a similar rally attracted some 4,000 people.

Economic analysts say the government's target of 4.4 percent growth this year is at risk because it envisages oil at $90 a barrel. Brent crude is now trading below $60.

Oil and gas account for 95 percent of the country's exports and 75 percent of government revenue.

The government has forecast annual inflation of 2.3 percent in 2015, up from 1.4 percent in 2014, although central bank president Elman Rustamov said in February prices could rise by 5-6 percent this year.

(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by David Evans)

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