BAKU, March 1 (Reuters) - Police in Azerbaijan used force to disperse a protest rally on Thursday, crushing a rare expression of dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic, local media said.
Several hundred residents had gathered in the central square of Quba, 170 km (100 miles) north of the capital Baku, to demand the resignation of the mayor, whom they accused of exceeding his authority. Protesters also blocked access to the town, which is home to about 40,000 people, and set fire to the mayor's house.
News agencies and broadcasters gave differing accounts of how many people police detained, ranging from 50 to 200. Many were quickly released. Police could not be reached for comment.
Western governments and human rights groups accuse President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of rigging elections and of clamping down on dissent, notably last year during a series of protests in the capital inspired by the Arab Spring.
The government insists Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim nation of nine million on the Caspian Sea, enjoys full freedom of speech and has a thriving opposition press.
Sandwiched in the strategic Caucasus region between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan supplies Caspian oil and gas to Europe and serves as a transit hub for U.S. troops based in Afghanistan - a role its critics say limits Western powers' willingness to sanction Azerbaijan for human rights abuses.
It is hosting the Eurovision song contest in May, an historic first that has generated considerable excitement among Azeris but has seen the country's rights record come under closer scrutiny. (Reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva; Writing by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Editing by Andrew Osborn)