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Azerbaijan: terror suspects have al-Qaida links

Members of a suspected terrorist group arrested this month in Azerbaijan had links to al-Qaida and some trained in neighboring Iran, officials said Thursday.

Some of the 17 suspects had fought NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and others had undergone a two-month training course in Iran in preparation for waging a jihad, or Islamic holy war, in Azerbaijan, the National Security Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry first announced the bust on April 6, saying the suspects were arrested in the capital, Baku, and several other cities across Azerbaijan, a former Soviet nation on the Caspian Sea. One security officer was shot and killed and three others were wounded in a skirmish during the arrests, and one suspect was also killed, it said.

The suspects were accused of planning a series of terror attacks intended to "disrupt stability and sow panic among the population."

In the new statement, issued late Wednesday, the ministry said the group was led by Vugar Padarov, a 37-year-old Azerbaijani citizen. Some of its members had received religious training in Syria, and some had learned how to handle weapons with the Jihad Islami group in Pakistan and took part in fighting NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, the ministry said.

It also said that some of the suspects had spent two months in Iran for weapons training, but gave no further details.

National Security Ministry spokesman Arif Babayev said Thursday that this group was unrelated to alleged Iranian agents arrested in February and March. He said the investigation was ongoing and he could give no further details.

The ministry announced the arrests in March of 22 Azerbaijani citizens it said had been hired by Iran to stage terror attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies. It said they had been trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard.

Earlier this year, they announced the arrest of several other suspected terrorists allegedly working for Iran's secret services.

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet nation of 9 million people wedged between Russia and Iran, has nurtured close relations with the United States and played an active role in Western-led counter-terrorist programs. That policy course has placed a strain on its ties with Iran, which hosts a sizable ethnic Azeri community.

Authorities in Baku have insisted, however, that they will not permit use of the country for any military action against Iran.