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Armenian Protests Turn Violent

Election: Thousands angered by alleged voting fraud break into parliament before being driven off by police.

September 26, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Thousands of rioters broke into Armenia's parliament building Wednesday but were forced back by gunfire and truncheon-wielding police after hours of fighting. More than two dozen people were reported injured, including parliament Speaker Babken Ararktsyan.

Calling the night of chaotic bloodshed a "coup attempt" by leaders of the crowd--opponents of President Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan--Interior Minister Vanik Siradegian said police had been forced to get tough to stop the "wave of violence" sweeping Yerevan, the Armenian capital, in a bloody postscript to the weekend's elections.

Yerevan has been in turmoil since the presidential vote Sunday. Electoral officials say Ter-Petrosyan, the incumbent, won more than 52% of the vote, and he has claimed victory.

But huge crowds have been gathering on capital streets for three days to make their point that they believe that Ter-Petrosyan and his forces cheated in the election. They say that opposition candidate Vazgen Manukyan is the real winner. The protesters have been demanding a recount--or revenge.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international group that monitored the election, has issued a cautiously worded preliminary report that nonetheless criticizes "very serious" irregularities in the Armenian voting procedures.

In a panicky atmosphere of accusation and counter-accusation, troops have been stationed inside a high fence around the parliament building since Tuesday; more soldiers with riot shields and water cannons are guarding Ter-Petrosyan's residence.

An aloof academic and onetime anti-Soviet dissident who won power in 1991, Ter-Petrosyan has transformed himself into a tough, pragmatic ruler. He let Moscow--Armenia's former colonial ruler--call the shots in forging a post-Soviet relationship. But he looks askance at dissent within his own borders. Much of his support comes from outside his capital, analysts say.

Manukyan, a former prime minister, campaigned on the pledge to revive industry and restore a national economy shattered after years of war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. He is especially popular with city sophisticates fed up with a poverty-stricken post-Soviet existence.

According to Manukyan, Wednesday's violence began after he and other opposition leaders left a tumultuous rally of about 70,000 people outside the opera house and went to the parliament building to negotiate there with the Central Electoral Commission for a review of Sunday's tallies. Russia's Interfax news agency said Manukyan supporters, awaiting their leader outside, closed in on the parliament building, fearing he might have been arrested inside.

As many as 6,000 people, chanting "Vazgen for president," surged over the fence. Once inside, they grabbed the parliament speaker and his deputy. The crowd beat both before departing; the speaker has been hospitalized with brain injuries, authorities said.

Manukyan later reemerged at the main rally and said the election commission was considering his request. But Paruir Airikyan, another opposition leader, later told Interfax that the commission had not met because members from Ter-Petrosyan's party didn't show up.

Khachik Bezirdzhyan, the commission chairman, on Wednesday declared final the results released earlier, suggesting that Manukyan had won only 41.07% of the vote.

But Manukyan's National Democratic Union of Armenia, which comprises five opposition parties, says it posted monitors to watch the tallies and claims that it has certified results from almost all 1,742 polling stations showing Manukyan won 55% of the vote.

But regional electoral commissions may have changed results after receiving tallies from individual precincts. The opposition is seeking a recount that would test results in at least three polling stations per region.

Wednesday's violence, however, probably will put a damper on any swift attempts to resolve the electoral disputes. Gamlet Gasparyan, the president's campaign chief, accused the opposition of "burning all its bridges."

Tempers could rise further today. Opposition leader Airikyan said the Yerevan crowd, which dispersed peacefully shortly before midnight, would reassemble today to pressure electoral officials to investigate the fraud allegations.

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