Gunmen Take Over Armenian Parliament; Premier Killed |
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 1999; 6:32 p.m. EDT
YEREVAN, Armenia –– Gunmen seized Armenia's parliament in a torrent of automatic weapons fire Wednesday, killing the prime minister and at least six other people before holing up in the building with dozens of hostages.
At least two of the captives were released early Thursday, nearly 10 hours after the siege began. The attackers didn't explain the release.
With the bodies of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian still on the podium where they fell, the attackers demanded to see the president.
"They said it was a coup and called on the journalists to inform people about it. They said they were going to punish the authorities for what they did to the nation," said one reporter who was in the chamber during the afternoon attack.
As day turned to night, police said up to five gunmen held dozens of hostages in the main chamber of the parliament building. A man identified as the gunmen's leader, Nairi Unanian, spoke in a telephone interview with a local television station.
"This is a patriotic action," he said. "This shake-up is needed for the nation to regain its senses."
He said the deaths were unintended except for Sarkisian, who he claimed had failed to serve the nation.
"The country is in a catastrophic situation, people are hungry and the government doesn't offer any way out," Unanian said.
Armenian television broadcast footage of the stunning attack, showing at least two men in long coats firing automatic weapons in the parliament chamber. Some lawmakers dove under their desks, others fled into the streets.
One of the attackers approached the prime minister and said: "Enough of drinking our blood," according to reporters present during the attack. The premier calmly responded, "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children."
The attacker – identified by reporters as Unanian, an extreme nationalist and former journalist – opened fire.
The other gunmen included Unanian's brother and uncle, the reporters said.
The attack was likely to plunge Armenia into a major political crisis. The country, which became independent following the 1991 Soviet collapse, has been plagued by political and economic turmoil for the past decade.
President Clinton said he was shocked and saddened by the attack.
"I condemn the senseless act against individuals actively engaged in building democracy in their country," Clinton said in a statement. "The victims and their families are in our thoughts and prayers."
Hundreds of police and soldiers ringed the parliament building in central Yerevan. Two armored personnel carriers took up positions in the grounds and President Robert Kocharian was personally directing security operations.
The gunmen were demanding talks with Kocharian, the country's top leader, but officials did not say if any other demands had been made.
A TV cameraman, Gagik Saratikian, who was allowed inside the chamber after the attack, said the gunmen appeared calm, directing him to film scenes in the wrecked hall.
"We're not terrorists, be calm," he said one of the assailants told him.
His footage showed the bodies of Sarkisian and Demirchian sprawled on the podium, where they had been gunned down.
The motive for the attack was not clear, although speculation centered on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has dominated Armenian politics for the past decade.
The enclave was under the control of the neighboring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, whose territory surrounded it. The enclave declared independence in early 1988 and drove Azerbaijani troops out with Armenia's help.
The Armenian government, although composed of nationalists such as Sarkisian who made their political careers by championing the enclave, has been seeking a solution.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was in Yerevan on Wednesday as part of efforts to secure a deal, leaving just hours before the shooting.
Unanian reportedly had been a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as Dashnak, the country's oldest political grouping, founded as a secret nationalist organization in 1890. The government has tried to suppress the group.
However, Dashnak said Unanian had been expelled several years ago and the party had nothing to do with the attack.
In addition to Sarkisian and Demirchian, the gunmen killed deputy speaker Yuri Bakhshian, Energy Minister Leonard Petrosian and senior economic official Mikhail Kotanian, according to Ararat Zurabian, a city spokesman.
Ruben Miroian, another deputy speaker, and Genrikh Abramian, another member of parliament, were also killed, said lawmaker Agvan Vardanian. He was being held hostage inside the parliament, and spoke to a local television network over his cell phone.
Six other lawmakers were wounded in the attack, Health Minister Gike Nikogosian said. There were reports that some other people had been wounded, but officials could not confirm this.
The full Cabinet was attending a question-and-answer session in the parliament chamber at the time of the shooting.
Sarkisian, a 40-year-old former athletic instructor and Soviet propaganda official, was appointed premier by Kocharian last June. He was an ally of Demirchian, who was Armenia's Soviet-era leader. The two headed the hard-line Unity party.
Armenia's prime minister is appointed by the president. Sarkisian's death will not require the government to hold new elections.
© 1999 The Associated Press