YEREVAN — Riot police clashed late on Friday with hundreds of people near a police compound in Yerevan occupied by gunmen affiliated with an Armenian opposition group.
More then 20 injured protesters were taken to Yerevan’s major hospital, Surb Grigor Lusavorich. A senior doctor there told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that most of them suffered burns apparently caused by the police flashbangs. Two of them are in a serious condition, he said.
The violence unfolded amid the sound of gunshots and explosions coming from the compound located in the city’s southern Erebuni district. It was not immediately clear whether security forces were conducting a large-scale operation there.
Most of the protesters sympathetic to the gunmen unexpectedly tried to approach the building from the nearby Sari Tagh neighborhood. Using tear gas and stun grenades, the police charged towards them after the protest leaders ignored senior law-enforcement officers’ orders to walk back to the city center.
The chief of Yerevan’s police department, Ashot Karapetian, said that the rally is illegal and that gunshots fired around the compound are too dangerous for its participants.
Some protesters as well as three RFE/RL journalists — Karlen Aslanian, Hovannes Movsisian and Garik Harutiunian — were attacked and beaten up by a large group of plainclothes men as they retreated towards downtown Yerevan. The men, who appeared to be police officers, were clearly aware that they are assaulting reporters.
“Are you filming?” one of them said before punching Movsisian, smashing his camera and tearing off his ID badge.
“I told them that I stopped filming but they kept hitting me,” Movsisian said by phone as he ran for safety and took cover in a local shop shortly before midnight.
“They are chasing us and trying to arrest everyone in sight,” he said, adding that he witnessed dozens of protesters injured and detained at the scene.
The two other RFE/RL reporters were also injured before fleeing to safety through another Sari Tagh street.
Earlier on Friday Armenian security forces shot and wounded three more gunmen in the continuing standoff with the gunmen barricaded inside the police compound.
The Armenian police spokesman, Ashot Aharonian, said they “returned fire” after the gunmen again started firing gunshots in defiance of warnings issued by law-enforcement authorities. “One of the shooters, Arayik Khandoyan, was wounded,” he said.
Aharonian said the gunfire continued after Khandoyan’s was struck by a bullet. “Two more shooters were wounded by retaliatory fire from law-enforcers,” he wrote on Facebook later in the evening. “They are receiving adequate medical assistance.”
Aharonian said the gunmen, Artur Melkonian and Armen Lambarian, were taken to the nearby Erebuni hospital afterwards.
Around the same time, an RFE/RL correspondent witnessed the hospitalization of two men outside the hospital entrance guarded by masked and armed security officers. She reported that one of them was Lambarian but could not recognize the other man.
Varuzhan Avetisian, the gunmen’s leader, blamed the police and the National Security Service (NSS) for Khandoyan’s shooting when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) before the two other gunmen were reportedly wounded.
“We contacted an NSS representative and he said, ‘You are shooting and that is why were are returning fire,’”Avetisian said by phone.
“But we are not shooting at them,” he said. “We are shooting inside our territory for our safety. We are shooting at an [unmanned aerial] device to make sure that it doesn’t drop bombs and harm us.”
Avetisian said that Khandoyan was wounded in the leg and immediately treated by three medics that were taken hostage by the gunmen on Wednesday.They claimed that the ambulance crew are not hostages. But he admitted that they are being held in the seized compound against their will.
“The presence of doctors here is a matter of life or death for us,” said Avetisian. “We are not holding the doctors hostage, we just need medical aid.”
“If there are no doctors here they will shoot us one by one,” he said.
Avetisian insisted on Friday that the three medics will be allowed to leave the compound only if they are replaced by another ambulance crew.
Taguhi Stepanian, the chief of Yerevan’s public ambulance service, rejected that condition. “They deceived us when they held our doctors [on Wednesday,]” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “They had told us that they have two seriously wounded persons and that they want the doctors to transport them to hospital.”
“Then they told the doctors, ‘You won’t get out of here until our demands are met,” said Stepanian.