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Tanks Patrol Armenian Capital; Opposition Leaders Arrested

Caucasus: Rioting against president's reelection leaves two people dead and dozens injured.

September 27, 1996|SELINA WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

YEREVAN, Armenia — The government deployed tanks in the streets of this capital and arrested opposition leaders Thursday after a night of rioting that left two dead and dozens injured.

The security crackdown followed a melee spurred by angry opposition supporters who stormed parliament Wednesday, accusing President Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan of rigging Sunday's election to claim a second term in office.

"These actions must be characterized as an attempted putsch," Interior Minister Vanik Siradegian told state-run television. "Responsibility falls on the organizers and instigators."

An emergency session of parliament stripped immunity from prosecution for eight members of the opposition coalition headed by the defeated Vazgen Manukyan, suggesting the leadership intends to crack down on the populist forces that won a majority of the Yerevan balloting but were outweighed by less disgruntled rural voters.

At least 50 people were wounded in brawls after a throng of demonstrators from a crowd of about 70,000 broke through the 10-foot iron fence surrounding parliament. The protesters assaulted at least seven deputies, including the speaker of the parliament.

Four opposition figures were arrested Thursday and two others had been detained overnight. It was unclear whether Manukyan, one of those stripped of immunity, had been taken into custody.

For the first time since independence in 1991, light tanks rattled up and down the main thoroughfares of this former Soviet republic's capital, increasing tension that has grown since announcement of the election outcome. At least 100 red beret-clad soldiers armed with automatic rifles guarded parliament and the television center. Armored personnel carriers sealed off many of Yerevan's main roads to traffic, and the central square was also cordoned off.

The unrest upset both supporters and opponents of the government.

"I shouldn't be here and these tanks certainly shouldn't be here," commented one soldier posted near parliament. "This isn't the way to act in a democracy--I want freedom in my country."

As she watched tanks roll down the main street and turn up toward a nearby university, schoolteacher Armine Ghazarian observed: "I suppose this means we're stuck with Ter-Petrosyan for another five years."

Ter-Petrosyan, 51, has lost popularity recently because of growing frustration with the difficult economic conditions. The 8-year-old war with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh triggered an economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey and left the country with a massive energy crisis.

Many members of Armenia's 2.4-million-person electorate, who struggle by on an average salary of $15 a month, decided to back an alternative candidate. Manukyan, 50, a former prime minister under Ter-Petrosyan, gained high ratings for his crackdown on corruption and his campaign on bread-and-butter issues.

Ter-Petrosyan, who had earlier in the week proclaimed a "brilliant victory" when preliminary results gave him 52% of the vote to Manukyan's 41%, responded to the violence by banning unauthorized demonstrations.

In a further move to quash the opposition, authorities closed and sealed the headquarters of Manukyan's National Democratic Union. The National Self-Determination Union, one of several other parties to support Manukyan in the presidential race, was also closed, said senior presidential advisor Jirair Libaridian.

"This is very bad for Armenia," analyst Hrachia Datevian said. "Now we are left with a president that has no opposition."

The ultranationalist Dashnak party was banned before last year's parliamentary elections.

Simon Osborn, coordinator of a team of international election observers, said that, despite "serious breaches" before and during polling day, the violations did not constitute a "systematic attempt to deny the will of the people." But many observers disagreed, saying they had seen soldiers being told to vote for Ter-Petrosyan by their officers.

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