YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–At least eight people were killed and hundreds of others injured in the standoff between security forces and thousands of opposition protesters in Yerevan that ended early Sunday following a state of emergency declared by President Robert Kocharian.
The Armenian police reported the death toll, citing information received from the Ministry of Health. A police statement issued early in the morning did not identify any of the victims, suggesting that all of them were protesters.
Five of them were identified by Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General later in the day.
The law-enforcement agency said it is investigating the circumstances of their deaths. It added that 33 police officers and interior troops were hospitalized from the scene of the opposition protest with various injuries. Health Minister Harutiun Kushkian put the total number of people treated in hospitals on Saturday at 230.
The standoff ended at around 4 a.m. local time after the top opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian, urged his supporters to go home, citing the state of emergency imposed by Kocharian. "I do not want any victims and clashes between police and innocent people. That is why I am asking you to leave," Ter-Petrosian said in a message read out to more than 2,000 people that barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office.
According to Reuters news agency, most of the crowd headed away from the square but a group of around 60 people refused to go home and set fire to abandoned police vehicles. Some of them accused the former Armenian president of being a traitor. Gunshots in downtown Yerevan could be heard after that.
The police statement did not report any high-profile arrests. But it said law-enforcement authorities are taking measures to identify and arrest organizers and participants of the “mass riots.”
The rally began spontaneously at Saturday noon after Ter-Petrosian was removed from the premises and escorted to his residence following the break-up of his supporters’ non-stop sit-in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Thousands of people had been keeping overnight vigils there in protest against the official results of the February 19 presidential election that gave victory to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Ter-Petrosian, who was Sarkisian’s main challenger, rejects those results as fraudulent.
The opposition leader appealed to his supporters in the early hours of the morning as Armenian army units backed by light tanks and armored personnel vehicles moved into the city center to help riot police disperse his supporters who occupied a major street junction outside the Yerevan municipality and the French Embassy in Armenia. The troops took positions near the area shortly after Kocharian declared emergency rule late Saturday. He pointed to violent clashes that broke out between the protesters and riot police on one of several streets leading to the site of the protest at approximately 9:10 p.m. local time
“They are using weapons and we are obliged to ensure the security of our citizens,” Kocharian told a late-night news conference. He claimed that opposition supporters provoked the violence by firing gunshots and wounding eight police officers.
The Armenian military urged Yerevan residents Sunday to comply with a state of emergency imposed the previous night, warning that its soldiers deployed in the city center would “strictly” counter any attempts to stage more anti-governmenr rallies there.
“I would like to warn all citizens that any attempt to organize or participate in events prohibited under the state of emergency would be adequately and strictly countered by the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia,” Colonel-General Seyran Ohanian, chief of the army staff, said in a televised address to the nation.
“In particular, I am asking you to refrain from attempting to assemble in Yerevan even in small groups,” said Ohanian. The army would step in at the “slightest” sign of such attempts, he added.
Hundreds of troops backed by armored vehicles continued to patrol key squares and street junctions in downtown Yerevan as of Sunday evening. In particular, they cordoned off the street where riot police fought pitched battles with angry supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Troop presence was also strong outside Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s office and Liberty Square where thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters had been camped for 11 days.
President Robert Kocharian, meanwhile, visited the site of the protest littered with stones and other traces of the late-night violence. Television images showed him inspecting the charred hulk of a police vehicle set ablaze by protesters outside the Yerevan mayor’s office.
Kocharian’s office said the outgoing president also discussed the post-election unrest in Armenia in a phone conversation with Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign and security policy chief. It said Solana expressed his “solidarity with the president and the people of Armenia” and pledged to send a special envoy to Armenia.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent a special envoy to Armenia on Sunday in a bid to end the country’s worst unrest in a decade.
"I have sent my special envoy to try to bring both sides to the negotiating table and to find a way out of this crisis through political dialogue," the OSCE chairman-in-office, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, said in a statement.
The envoy, 68-year old diplomat Heikki Talvitie, is scheduled to arrive in Yerevan on Sunday.
OSCE chairman Kanerva condemned the use of force against demonstrators and called for restraint. "I urge the authorities to release those detained, and I again call on the government and the opposition to engage in dialogue", he said. "Everything should be done to avoid further casualties and any further escalation of tension."
Talvitie intends to meet Kocharian, outgoing Prime Minister and president-elect Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Ter-Petrosian.
In a related development, a top Vatican envoy has postponed a visit to Armenia because of the unrest in Yerevan, the Vatican said on Sunday. Secretary of State Cardinal Taarcisio Bertone, who ran’s only second to the pope in the Vatican hierarchy, had been due to leave later on Sunday and stay until March 6.
A Vatican statement said the trip was not cancelled and could take place later. The second leg of Bertone’s trip, to Azerbaijan from March 6-9, would go ahead as scheduled.