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BAKU (Reuters) - A pro-government party in Azerbaijan has offered a bounty to anyone who slices off the ear of a celebrated writer it says insulted the nation with his depiction of friendship and violence between Azeris and Armenians.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have had no diplomatic ties since a war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union fell apart, killed 30,000 people.
Human Rights Watch condemned the threat against Akram Aylisli, who held the title of "People's Author" in Azerbaijan before being stripped the honor by the president last week after the story "Stone Dreams" enraged Azeris.
The work, which was published in a Russian magazine, in part tells the story of how some Azeris tried to protect their Armenian neighbors when Armenians were being tortured and beaten in Baku in 1990.
With nearly 1 million displaced people from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh living in Azerbaijan and both states suffering the economic and social effects of the war, the topic of ethnic relations is a hornet's nest.
The leader of Azeri pro-government party Muasir Musavat (Modern Equality) told Reuters on Tuesday the party was offering 10,000 manats, nearly $13,000, for anyone who cut off Aylisli's ear.
"(Aylisli) insulted the entire Azeri nation," party leader Hafiz Haciyev said in his party office in Baku. "As he has insulted us we wanted to respond, and that is why we have decided ... that his ear must be chopped off."
Even before Haciyev's threat, officials from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party called on Aylisli to withdraw the novel from sale and ask for the nation's forgiveness. There have been protests outside his home in Baku.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev last week signed a decree stripping Aylisli of his title of "People's Writer", one of the country's highest cultural honors, which he had held since 1998.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Azerbaijan on Tuesday to stop the campaign of intimidation against him.
"The government of Azerbaijan has an obligation to protect safety and security and investigate any threats against the writer, whose only fault is that he expressed his mind," said Georgy Gogia, South Caucasus researcher for the group.
"In fact, the government is often spearheading this smear campaign," he said.
A truce between Azerbaijan and Armenia was signed in 1994, but there was no peace treaty. Violence still flares sporadically along the ceasefire line and Azerbaijan's border with Armenia - underlining the risk of a conflict in the South Caucasus, where Turkey, Russia and Iran have interests.
The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has about 160,000 people and runs its own affairs with heavy Armenian military and financial backing since the war. Oil-producing Azerbaijan often threatens to take it back by force, though it says it favors diplomacy.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze, Nino Ivanishvili, Lada Evgrashina; Editing by Alison Williams