BAKU - A court in Azerbaijan sentenced a group of militant Islamists including two Lebanese men to between 12 and 15 years in jail on Monday for plotting attacks on the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Baku.
A spokesman for the court said the group, also including four Azeris, was linked to Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, Sunni al Qaeda and the security services of Azeri neighbor Iran.
They were accused of plotting attacks in 2008 on the Israeli and U.S. embassies in the oil-producing former Soviet republic and the Qabala radar station in the north. The two Lebanese men were each sentenced to 15 years in prison.
They (the attacks) were planned for 2008, but special services uncovered the plans and neutralized the criminal group, which was organized by Lebanese citizens, the spokesman said.
Most of Azerbaijan's 8.3 million people are Shi'ite Muslim, but the government under President Ilham Aliyev is strictly secular and close to Washington. The majority of Azeris take a relaxed attitude toward religion, but officials say Islam is a growing influence.
In June this year, a group of 20 followers of the strict Wahhabi branch of Islam was sentenced to between two and 18 years in jail for plotting to attack the U.S. and British embassies.
In December 2007, 15 members of another Islamist group were sentenced to long prison terms for a foiled coup plot. Authorities also said then that the group had links to Iranian security services.
Azerbaijan sells oil and gas to the West from reserves in the Caspian Sea, much of the oil flowing through a BP-led pipeline.
Critics of Aliyev, son of late long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, say his administration's heavy-handed methods and intolerance of dissent are driving young men toward radical Islam.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Ralph Boulton)