Rail Rzayev, head of the Azerbaijan air force, was murdered in front of his home Wednesday, Aida Sultanova reports for AP.

An unidentified gunman fatally shot Azerbaijan’s air force chief Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said — the highest-level killing to hit the oil-rich country’s armed forces in peacetime since the Soviet collapse.


President Ilham Aliyev in televised comments called the slaying a “terrible crime” and said he would take personal control of the investigation.  “I demand the law enforcement agencies find and hold responsible those who carried out and ordered this terrible crime,” Aliyev said. Azerbaijan’s chief military prosecutor, speaking from the rain-soaked site of the shooting outside Lt. Gen. Rail Rzayev’s home in the capital, Baku, said authorities did not know the motive.

Strategically 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. But there was no immediate sign of a link with that struggle. Tension with neighboring Armenia remains high 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.

According to chief military prosecutor Khanlar Veliyev, 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. Veliyev said it appeared Rzayev died of a single gunshot wound to the head. Rzayev had gotten into his car to be driven to work when he was shot, the private television station Lider reported. Veliyev said investigators were looking at security-camera footage from the home and searching the area for clues, but were hampered by the heavy rains that fell all night.

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 potential threat from, Iran.

Details are obviously sketchy and, for all we know, this could be a senseless crime or one motivated simply by money or another non-political motive.  But this bears watching.  The last thing we need in that part of the world is another country in crisis.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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