YEREVAN (Combined Sources) — Thousands of demonstrators were marching in Yerevan late on July 25 in support of a group of gunmen who have occupied an Armenian police station for more than a week.
The demonstrators chanted “unity” and called for bystanders to join them, swelling their numbers as the march progressed along the streets of the Armenian capital and the demonstrators arrived at Yerevan’s central Republic Square.
It was the largest gathering of support for the gunmen since the crisis began on July 17.
The march began on July 25 after military helicopters were seen flying over the occupied police building.
The presence of the helicopters prompted speculation that a military raid against the gunmen was imminent.
The gunmen set a police van on fire near the building earlier that day.
Meanwhile, Armenian law enforcement agencies called on the gunmen not to take any steps that would “risk the lives of citizens or that stir up tensions.”
One police officer was killed on July 17 when the gunmen, linked to the radical Founding Parliament opposition movement, stormed into the Erebuni police station.
The gunmen took seven police officers as hostages but released the last of them on July 23 after negotiations with a senior officer in Armenia’s armed forces.
The gunmen are members of a little-known group called Sasna Tsrer, dubbed by some the Daredevils of Sassoun, which is loyal to Founding Parliament Party leader, Zhirayr Sefilian.
They say they have no intention of laying down their arms until their demands are met. Those demands include the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the release of Sefilian, who was arrested along with six of his supporters on June 20 on illegal weapons charges.
Police initially accused Sefilian of preparing a plot to seize government buildings and telecommunication facilities in Yerevan.
Most of Sefilian’s supporters in Sasna Tsrer are veterans of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Founding Parliament is sharply critical of the way Armenia’s government has dealt with the long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh, a territory that both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim.
Two of the opposition gunmen locked in a standoff with the Armenian authorities were wounded by security forces early on.
Both men surrendered to the Armenian police and were hospitalized shortly afterwards.
A police statement said that security forces opened fire when a police SUV driven by one of the gunmen unexpectedly emerged from the station and approached a police cordon about 100 meters away.
“The vehicle almost reached the cordon, after which law-enforcers fired on its engine and tires in order to stop the car and stave off a serious danger emanating from three armed men seated inside it,” said the statement. Two of them were wounded in the leg as a result, it said.
Video of the incident separately circulated by the police shows the car’s visibly wounded driver running back towards the police station. Another gunman can be seen dragging away the second wounded man.
Hospital officials confirmed that the men, identified as Ashot Petrosian and Hovannes Harutiunian, are undergoing medical treatment there.
YEREVAN. – Armenian police made public the names of an armed group that seized the police regiment in Yerevan on July 17.
The 31 members of the group are: Pavel Manukyan, Tigran Manukyan, Hakob Hakobyan, Armen Lambaryan, Gagik Yeghiazaryan, Areg Kyureghyan, Smbat Barseghyan, Edward Grigoryan, Armen Bilyank, Varuzhan Avetisyan, Ashot Petrosyan, Toros Torosyan, Mkhitar Avetisyan, Tatul Tamrazyan, Vardan Geravetyan, Gevorg Igityan, Sedrak Nazaryan, Martirosya Hakobyan, Arthur Soghomonyan, Arayik Khandoyan, Sergey Kyureghyan, Hovhannes Harutyunyan, Hovhannes Vardanyan, Ruben Grigoryan, Arayik Hakobyan, Gevorg Melkonyan, Garnik Hovakimyan, Arthur Melkonyan, Edgar Soghomonyan, Aram Manukyan and Tigran Sargsyan.
The armed members of an opposition group holed up in a police station Yerevan may well avoid imprisonment if they surrender to law-enforcement authorities, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said on Monday
“In case of the existence of conditions defined by Armenian legislation, individuals voluntarily backing away from a crime can be exempted from criminal liability,” the NSS said as its standoff with the gunmen entered into a second week.
“In this regard, the militants were handed on July 25 written clarifications and explanations on the sequence of actions which must be taken by them and the route for their surrender,” it added in a statement.
The NSS note delivered to the gunmen was publicized by the Armenian police. It lists articles of the Armenian Criminal Code that allow individuals taking hostages or seizing government buildings to avoid prosecution.
“You still have time to lay down your arms and surrender,” says the document.
The NSS did not specify whether the authorities would also not prosecute anyone in connection with the killing of a senior police officer carried out during the July 17 attack on the police station. A leader of the gunmen has claimed that Colonel Artur Vanoyan was shot dead “by accident.”
The NSS said at the same time that it is seeking to resume negotiations with the armed members of the Founding Parliament opposition movement which were mediated until this weekend by Vitaly Balasanian, a Nagorno-Karabakh politician.
The talks resulted in the release on Saturday of four police officers held hostage by the attackers. The latter refused to negotiate with Balasanian after he claimed that Founding Parliament’s arrested leader, Zhirayr Sefilian, no longer demands President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation.
The authorities appeared to have stepped up pressure on the gunmen following the release of the gunmen, reportedly halting food and electricity supplies to them and blocking access to their mobile phones. As a result, the standoff escalated on the night from Sunday to Monday, with the gunmen setting fire to a police van commandeered by them. A military helicopter briefly hovered over the seized police premises early in the morning.
Alek Yenikomshian, a Founding Parliament figure, said the vehicle was burned down in protest against the blockade imposed by the authorities. He said that the authorities have also stopped providing medical assistance to one of the gunmen wounded during the July 17 assault.
The NSS statement insisted, however, that the authorities offered to hospitalize the man but were rebuffed by the armed group. The security agency also said it has arrested several more individuals suspected of aiding the gunmen. It did not name any of them or specify the total number of people detained in connection with the armed attack.
Speaking to journalists on Monday morning, Yenikomshian accused the authorities of deliberately heightening tensions. “Serious developments may occur at any moment,” he warned. “We hope that prudence will prevail within the ruling regime.”
Sargisian Offers to Meet Sefilian
President Serzh Sargsyan is ready to meet the jailed opposition leader Zhirayr Sefilian if the armed member of his organization occupying a police station in Yerevan lay down their arms, a politician who has negotiated with them said on Sunday.
Vitaly Balasanian, a retired Nagorno-Karabakh army general, also insisted that Sefilian no longer supports the gunmen’s key demand — Sargsyan’s resignation — and has set other conditions that have been communicated to the president.
“[Sargsyan] has expressed readiness to invite Zhirair Sefilian and explain to him the reality and prospects immediately after the guys lay down arms and surrender,” Balasanian said in a statement cited by the Armenpress news agency.
Ter-Petrosian Appeals to Gunmen
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian appealed on Friday to Sefilian for a speedy resolution of the protests.
“I want to express hope that he will make use of that ability this time as well and place the fate of Armenia and Karabagh above everything else,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian thus seemed to imply that Sefilian should tell the two dozen Founding Parliament gunmen who seized a Yerevan police station on July 17 to lay down their arms. He argued that the unprecedented hostage crisis is only aggravating Armenia’s grave national security challenges emanating from the recent escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The 71-year-old ex-president, who leads the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) party, had been a bitter critic of the government ever since returning to active politics in 2007.
(Public Radio of Armenia and Radio Free Europe reports contributed to this story.)