YEREVAN (RFE/RL/Yerkir)–Political confrontation between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his rivals took a violent twist on Tuesday when special police forces broke up an opposition rally in the center of Yerevan–at 2:00 AM local time–a few dozen meters away from parliament and the US embassy.
"People are panicking and are running down Marshal Baghramian Avenue. Police are using water cannons. They have taken away the barbed wire that was in front of the parliament building and started charging the demonstrators," said RFE/RL Yerevan bureau correspondent Hrach Melkumian–speaking live from the scene.
"We saw these water cannons coming toward us and they starting drenching us. Then special police forces started throwing [blank] grenades at the crowd. We heard explosions and ran away in panic."
Yesterday–some 10,000 protesters were stopped by police on Marshal Baghramian Avenue while marching toward Kocharian’s office. No violence was reported then. Approximately one-third of the demonstrators decided to camp there for the night–turning the protest into an improvised open-air music festival.
As soon as the security raid started–opposition supporters spread out in various directions and attempted to break through the police cordon. Some found refuge in smaller streets–others in private houses nearby.
Police today confirmed the operation–saying only that several people were injured and others detained during the night raid.
Armenia’s Noyan Tapan news agency quoted Yerevan city health officials as saying 16 demonstrators were hospitalized. Armenian state television showed pictures of policemen being assaulted by people identified as protesters and security officers receiving medical treatment. It gave no details of civilian injuries.
In commen’s broadcast on state-run television today–Interior Ministry spokesman Sayat Shirinian said protesters provoked the security forces.
"Police repeatedly warned demonstrators that their unlawful actions would be met with adequate reaction if they were to continue. But–despite this–the transgressors went on for quite a long time with their antisocial actions. On top of this–in response to [our] warnings–they started moving menacingly toward police forces," Shirinian said.
Shirinian said protesters assaulted security officers with stones and petrol bombs while shouting antigovernment slogans and calling for the violent overthrow of the existing regime.
The opposition denies these claims.
One female demonstrator said the streetlights went out suddenly and that the police moved in without prior warning.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gave a mixed assessment of the overnight unrest. In commen’s made to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service–Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin suggested that both protesters and police forces were to blame for the violence.
"We don’t share the opinion that the demonstration was purely peaceful–because all sorts of provocative statemen’s were being made and stones were being thrown [at police forces]. But that’s not the point. We are against any kind of violence–and we conveyed our concerns with this regard personally to [President Kocharian]," Pryakhin said.
RFE/RL’s Yerevan Bureau reports that the offices of Armenia’s main opposition parties were raided during the night and several activists detained. Some–such as lawmaker Shavarsh Kocharian of the Justice (Artarutyun) alliance–were released shortly after.
None of the main opposition leaders were detained.
National Unity Party Chairman Ardashes Geghamian said he was among the protesters on Marshal Baghramian Avenue and that he escaped with only slight injuries.
Yesterday’s march marked the culmination of four days of anti-Kocharian protests led by the Justice alliance and the National Unity Party.
In a bid to defuse the mounting political tension–the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)–one of the three partners in the ruling coalition–last week proposed that Justice and its allies have a say in domestic affairs through the National Security Council–warning that "either we shall all win–ensuring the rapid and stable development of the country–or we shall all lose–reaping the devastating consequences of confrontation and civil conflict."
The ARF’s statement called for real and guaranteed reforms in the life of the country and its people–as the substance of the agreement–that it proposed would include: The formation of an electoral system that entirely meets international standards; Constitutional reforms that strengthen democratic mechanisms; A comprehensive fight against corruption–the shadow economy–and the system of clans.
However–the opposition rejected the offer.
Lawmakers of the ARF and the two other coalition partners–the Republican Party and Rule of Law (Orinats Yerkir)–unexpectedly walked out of yesterday’s parliamentary session.
ARF parliamentarian Vahan Hovhanissian said the boycott by the coalition partners sought to avoid possible violence between their supporters and anti-Kocharian street protesters.
Whether the opposition will be able to stage further antigovernment rallies in the coming days remains unclear.