BAKU (AFP) – The powerful chief of Azerbaijan’s air force was shot dead outside his home Wednesday, the highest ranking military official to be killed in the oil-rich republic wedged between Russia and Iran.
Lieutenant-General Rail Rzayev, 64, was gunned down outside his home in the capital Baku as he left for work in the early morning, interior ministry spokesman Sadiq Gozalov told AFP.
"The general was shot and received a heavy wound to the head. He was sent to the military hospital in Baku, where he died," Gozalov said.
Gozalov said police were on the scene investigating and that military prosecutors would be handling the case. He said he had no information regarding a possible motive for the shooting.
Experts said the killing may have been a contract hit linked with Rzayev’s role in large-scale military acquisitions Azerbaijan has made in recent years as government coffers surged from oil revenues.
"This is the most serious murder in the history of Azerbaijan’s defense ministry," Baku-based military analyst Uzeir Jafarov said.
"Rzayev was the focal point for air force and air defense military acquisitions and the largest part of (Azerbaijan’s) military budget is being allocated for acquisitions in these spheres."
He said he was unaware of any personal problems that may have been behind the killing.
Jafarov also said that Rzayev had no ambitions outside his role as air force chief and he doubted the killing may have been linked to an internal struggle within Azerbaijan’s military.
Azerbaijan’s ANS television reported that Rzayev had been the head of Azerbaijan’s air force and air defense forces since 1992.
Azerbaijan is in the strategic Caucasus region, where Russia and the US are vying for influence. The energy-rich mainly Muslim republic is also a major energy exporter and transit hub for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.
The country has more than quadrupled its military budget in the last five years thanks to soaring oil revenues.
Rzayev was also Azerbaijan’s point man in negotiations between Russia and the United States over the use of the Gabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan.
Russia in 2007 offered to share the Gabala station, which it leases from Azerbaijan, in exchange for the US dropping plans to deploy a radar station in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland as part of its missile defense systems.