Azerbaijan says foils attacks near US embassy

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BAKU, Oct 29 (Reuters) Azerbaijan detained a group of militant Islamists armed with grenade launchers who were preparing an attack near the US embassy, the former Soviet state's security ministry said today.

''Several people belonging to a Wahhabi group have been detained.

They were planning terrorist attacks near the US embassy in Baku,'' National Security Ministry spokesman Arif Babayev told Reuters.

''Among them was an officer in the Azerbaijani army,'' the spokesman said.

Babayev said that part of the group was detained at the weekend in the village of Mashtagi, near Baku, including the military officer, who had recently gone absent from his post.

''It was established that the group ... had four Kalashnikov rifles, one Kalashnikov grenade launcher, 20 grenades, rounds and other automatic weapon parts,'' Babayev said.

Azerbaijan's Ministry of Internal Affairs later said that two men detained near the US embassy today were released after their documents were checked.

PRECAUTIONARY STEPS Britain closed its diplomatic office in Baku today because of security concerns, and the US moved its embassy to limited operations, officials said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the US embassy in Baku had reduced its operations but said he expected these to return to normal in a few days.

McCormack said the US embassy took ''precautionary steps'' in response to some ''threat information'' but declined to describe either the threats or the steps taken.

He also said the embassy had not moved to reduce staff, something the State Department sometimes does following serious threats.

Azerbaijan is an oil-producing, mainly Muslim republic of 8 million people on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, wedged between Iran, Turkey and Russia.

Authorities there have in the past years arrested dozens of people suspected of links to Islamist militants, but the country has no history of militant violence against Western targets.

Wahhabism originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. It is rooted in the idea of restoring Islam's purity by purging it of foreign and corrupting influences, and is associated in the West with Islamist extremism.

Reuters GT GC2348

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