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Opposition Leader Predicts 'Humanitarian Crisis' In Armenia

Rally organizers said 100,000 people gathered in Yerevan, while the police said only 5,000 showed.

Rally organizers said 100,000 people gathered in Yerevan, while the police said only 5,000 showed.

YEREVAN (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Armenian opposition supporters have defied the authorities in Yerevan to rally on the first anniversary of the country's worst political clashes since independence.

Addressing the rally, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian said the government is on the verge of collapse, but said he'll have to "disappoint" radically minded supporters and rejected calls for "decisive action" for the time being.

"Armenia today faces challenges of restoring democracy, Karabakh resolution, overcoming regional isolation, and economic crisis," Ter-Petrossian, Armenia's first president from 1991-98 and leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) opposition movement told thousands of supporters.

He denounced "revolt and revolution" as the country "is headed towards difficult times, loaded with danger of social and perhaps even humanitarian crisis."

"I am convinced that the country is literally falling into a precipice," Ter-Petrossian said, assuring the crowd that "after some time a completely different, much more favorable situation will take shape. I don't exclude the possibility, that soon the ruling regime will find itself in such a situation, when it will be forced to resign and even ask us to form a national rescue government. The current crisis will be worse and harder to overcome than even the crisis in the 1990s."

Calls For Justice

Ten people, including two police officers, were killed on March 1, 2008, when street battles broke out as police moved to disperse thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters who had rallied for 11 days to denounce President Serzh Sarkisian's win in a February election.

Recalling last year's clashes, Ter-Petrossian accused the authorities of perpetrating violence. "Jails remain full of dozens of our friends. For a whole year, the authorities have done nothing to discover those responsible for the [March 1] crime -- killers, looters, arsonists, because those were all their men," he said.

Ter-Petrossian rejected "direct action" -- for now.
The opposition claims over 100,000 people participated in the rally, while police estimated the figure at 5,000. Police initially blocked access to the rally location. Faced with pressure from the crowd and opposition leaders, the police chain was soon removed and opposition supporters entered the square of the Matenadaran library of ancient manuscripts, a common rally location in Yerevan.

Earlier in the day, RFE/RL correspondents witnessed public transport from outside the capital being turned back and drivers refusing to take people to Yerevan, citing various reasons.

Yerevan was encircled by strengthened police patrols. Security was tight near the rally location as well, with water cannon and fire brigades brought into a square nearby.

This rally was the first major opposition gathering since October 17, 2008, when Ter-Petrossian called for a "temporary" halt to his year-long campaign of antigovernment demonstrations, citing the need to stave off greater Armenian concessions on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which he said are sought by the West.

The rally was followed by a march through central Yerevan to Grigor Lusavorich Avenue, the location of last year's deadly clashes.

Commenting on the anniversary, a spokesman for the president's Republican Party said that the events of March 1 were a tragedy that shouldn't have happened. "It was bloodshed that had very negative impact on the credibility of our country and on the future efforts of our state and society."

Catholicos of all Armenians Garegin II held special services in the Armenian Holy See of Echmiadzin, the main Armenian church. President Sarkisian separately took part in a memorial service in Yerevan's St. Sargis Church. There was no official statement from the president's office.

RFE/RL's Armenian Service