Yerevan, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - Heavily armed gunmen burst into Armenia's parliament chamber today and killed the prime minister
and three other senior officials. The deaths were confirmed by two presidential spokemen who also said gunmen are still holding about 50 people hostage in the parliament. Hundreds of police and army soldiers have surrounded the building and President Robert Kocharian is negotiating with the gunmen. The deaths were confirmed by two presidential spokemen who also said gunmen are still holding about 50 people hostage in the parliament. Hundreds of police and army soldiers have surrounded the building and President Robert Kocharian is negotiating with the gunmen. Presidential spokesmen told reporters that Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, Parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, his deputy Yuri Bakhshian, and Leonard Petrosian, the minister for operative issues, were all killed.
Our correspondent says the gunmen told the government leaders that they were conducting a coup to end their rule as they began firing. But Presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian says the gunmen have no political affiliations and says this was not a coup attempt.
Sarkissian, who was appointed by the president in June, and Demirchian, Armenia's Soviet-era leader, were joint leaders of the unity alliance that won the largest share of votes in a May 30 election.
RFE/RL correspondent Ruzanna Khachatrian, reporting from the scene, said
the gunmen entered parliament this afternoon shouting slogans accusing the prime
minister of suppressing democracy.
Khachatrian sent a first report via cell phone from inside the parliament
chamber with the gunmen nearby:
"A group of young men opened fire on the prime minister and the deputies.
We're now hiding under the benches and the firing is still going on. The gunmen
are shouting if anyone comes near the parliament building, they will be shot.
The firing is coming from the security services office. One of the wounded
deputies has been carried out. The leader of the gunmen is shouting about how
the government has been 'sucking the blood of the people.'"
Khachatrian identified the lead gunman as Nairi Hoonanian, a journalist who
formerly worked for an opposition political party. The identity of the other
gunmen and the gunmen's motives are not known.
Details are still emerging. The gunmen later took hostages and requested a
personal meeting with President Robert Kocharian, who is reportedly there now meeting with security officials.
Security forces are blocking the streets around the parliament building in
the center of the capital.
The shooting coincided with a visit to Yerevan by U.S. Deputy Secretary of
State Strobe Talbott. Talbott earlier held talks with Sarkisian and Kocharian on
the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Talbott had already left Yerevan for
the Turkish capital Ankara at the time of the shooting.
Kocharian was thought to have been in his palace, not far from parliament,
when the shooting began. He has not yet commented on the shooting.
The parliament was full of deputies today as Wednesday is the day when the
assembly poses questions to the government.
The 40-year-old Sarkissian was appointed prime minister in June, following
the election victory in May of his Miasnutyun ("Unity") coalition. That alliance
comprises the Republican Party of Armenia, which Sarkissian founded last year,
and the People's Party of Armenia, headed by Demirchian.
Correspondents say Sarkissian's party was intended to form a powerful
centrist base for President Kocharian. Since Sarkissian's appointment as prime
minister, there have been repeated rumors of tension between Sarkissian and
Kocharian. Both men denied that there were tensions.
Sarkissian was elected a deputy to Armenia's first post-communist
parliament in 1990, and was later appointed to head the parliament's defense
committee. He assumed responsibility in 1991 for creating an Armenian national
army and served as defense minister for a brief period in 1992, helping to
organize the defenses of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 1992, Sarkissian was replaced as defense minister and appointed an
adviser to then president Levon Ter-Petrossian.
He was reappointed to head the defense ministry in 1995 and rapidly
acquired a reputation as one of the most powerful men in the country.
(By Mark Baker. Emil Danielyan of the Armenian Service and Liz Fuller of Newsline also
contributed to this report)