YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Amid a chorus of condemnation by opposition parties and human rights activists, the Armenian police defended on Saturday the forcible dispersal of people who rallied late on Friday in support of anti-government gunmen holed up in a Yerevan police compound.
The police warned that they would again use force if protesters sympathetic to the gunmen make further attempts to approach the compound besieged by security forces.
The protesters marched to Yerevan’s Sari Tagh neighborhood overlooking the seized premises in the city’s southern Erebuni district. Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to end the protest organized by politicians and public figures allied to Founding Parliament, a radical opposition group with which the gunmen are affiliated.
At least 60 people, the vast majority of them protesters, were injured and scores of others detained in the ensuing violence.
Many of those injuries were caused by a large group of plainclothes men that helped the police officers disperse the crowd. Those men also attacked three RFE/RL reporters and several other journalists working various Armenian media outlets.
The police actions were strongly condemned by virtually all Armenian mainstream opposition parties. Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, also criticized them in unusually strong terms.
Tatoyan demanded on Saturday that law-enforcement authorities “immediately suspend and launch criminal proceedings against police officers that inflicted serious injuries on the protesters and journalists.
The police were unrepentant about the use of force, however, saying that at least some of the protesters tried to break through a police cordon and join the gunmen from Sari Tagh. A police statement also argued that the protest came during an unusually intense exchange of fire between security forces and the gunmen demanding President Serzh Sarkisian.
The seized police facility is located only a few hundred meters from a narrow Sari Tagh street where the police clashed with Founding Parliament supporters.
“The police conducted negotiates with the leaders of the gathering and repeatedly urged them to stop violent actions and leave that area … but participants of the gathering ignored the police demands,” said the statement.
According to Armenia’s Investigative Committee, two of the protest leaders, Armen Martirosian and Andrias Ghukasian, are among 23 individuals arrested at the scene on suspicion of provoking or participating “mass disturbances.” None of them was formally charged as of Saturday evening.
The police again stressed that the gunmen’s sympathizers can hold rallies in other parts of Yerevan. “For security considerations, the police are once again urging citizens … not to stage marches to the special security zone [around the Erebuni compound] and create additional difficulties for law-enforcement bodies,” read their statement.
The statement warned that the police would not hesitate to break up fresh protests that could be staged near the police premises that have been occupied by the gunmen for the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Armenian security forces gave police station gunmen until 5 p.m. Saturday to lay down their arms or face a large-scale assault.
“Or else, special units of law-enforcement bodies will be authorized to open fire and neutralize, without prior warnings, any armed person in and outside the [seized] police regiment,” Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said in a statement issued at 4 p.m. local time.
The NSS linked the ultimatum with intensive gunfire which it said the gunmen opened late on Friday at NSS and police units surrounding them. It said a number of police officers was wounded before the security forces returned fire.
“After what happened on the evening of July 29, all real possibilities of reaching a peaceful resolution of the situation with the terrorists have been exhausted,” declared the security agency. Use of force against them has become “absolutely necessary” in these circumstances, it added.
The Armenian police said on Saturday that one of their officers has been shot dead in the continuing standoff.
Ashot Aharonian, the police spokesman, said the 30-year-old officer, Yuri Tepanosian, was killed by sniper fire as he sat in a police car parked “350-400 meters” from the compound.
A separate police statement said that Tepanosian served in interior troops that are part of the national police service. The warrant officer had three children.
Aharonian reported the shooting about two hours after the expiry of an ultimatum issued to the gunmen by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS).