YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The anti-government gunmen holed up in a police station in Yerevan released on Saturday all four police officers held hostage by them after negotiations held with the Armenian government through a mediator. But refused to surrender to Armenian security forces insisting that President Serzh Sarkisian must free their arrested leader and step down.
The mediator, Vitaly Balasanian, announced the impending release of the hostages in comments to the Armenian TV station Shant aired in the morning.
Two rank-and-file policemen were the first to regain their freedom shortly afterwards. The two other, high-ranking officers, Vartan Yeghiazarian and and Valeri Osipinian, were set free in the following hours.
Balasanian, who is a retired Nagorno-Karabakh army general, said it was also agreed that in return for the hostages’ release, Armenian security forces will allow the gunmen’s leaders to talk to journalists at a “neutral zone” around the seized police compound. The journalists will work there “around-the-clock,” he added without elaborating.
Late in the afternoon, some 40 reporters, including an RFE/RL correspondent and cameraman, were transported there in three police minibuses. None of them was allowed to provide a live broadcast the gunmen’s news conference that was apparently continuing as of 5 p.m. local time.
One of the two leaders of the gunmen, Varuzhan Avetisian, said the authorities pledged to give the Armenian press permanent access to a “neutral zone” at the entrance to the police compound in Yerevan’s Erebuni district.
The sprawling compound that housed a police regiment tasked with crowd control and street patrols was seized by them on July 17. The regiment’s deputy commander, Colonel Artur Vanoyan, was killed and several other policemen wounded in the assault.
Both Avetisian and the other leader of the armed group, Pavel Manukian, insisted that they will not give up themselves and are prepared for a possible attack by security forces deployed around the seized base in large numbers. Manukian claimed that the gunmen are also ready to seize other buildings.
The two men also stressed that their demands remain unchanged: Sarkisian’s resignation and the release from prison of Jirayr Sefilian, the leader of their Founding Parliament movement, and other “political prisoners.”
The agreement on the hostages’ release is understood to have been reached at a secret meeting between the two leaders of the armed group and the director of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), Georgi Kutoyan. The meeting was mediated by Balasanian.
“The negotiation process is continuing,” NSS spokesman Samson Galtsian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) shortly after the two lower-ranking hostages were freed.
“I can’t give any other information at this point in the interests of the negotiation process,” said Galtsian.
Balasanian did not specify whether the authorities are ready to meet the hostage-takers’ key demands: the release from prison of Sefilian, and President Sarkisian’s resignation.
Balasanian said he has also received assurances from President Sarkisian that the security forces will not attack the seized police premises for now. But he also stressed: “They must lay down their arms today or tomorrow.”
Sarkisian on Friday urged the armed oppositionists to lay down their arms and give up themselves, saying that they cannot effect any political change in Armenia through violence.