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Armenia: Gummen Surrender, Hostages Released

Yerevan, 28 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - The five gunmen who yesterday attacked the Armenian parliament -- killing the prime minister and seven other government officials and deputies -- surrendered this morning after President Robert Kocharian had assured them he would spare their lives and promised them a fair trial. Some 40 hostages held by the gunmen in the building overnight were released. Earlier, four other hostages had been allowed to go free. There was no word as yet on the hostages' condition. After the gunmen gave up their weapons, they were escorted out of the building by Andranik Martarian, a leader of Armenia's Unity Party, who had been one of the hostages. They were then taken by police to Armenia's Security Ministry for questioning. The gunmen's surrender capped a night of direct negotiations between them and Kocharian's office. At one point, the president is reported to have spoken directly with their leader, Nairi Hoonanian. Reporters who witnessed yesterday's shooting inside the parliamentary chamber identified Hoonanian and described him as an extreme nationalist and former journalist. Some of the reporters present in the parliament said that Hoonanian's brother and uncle were also among the attackers.

According to one account (ITAR-TASS), Hoonanian last night told Armenian TV channel A1 Plus that the group's assault was intended to kill only Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and that the other deaths were the result of what he called "technical errors." In a statement broadcast by state television this morning, the gunmen claimed parliamentary security forces were responsible for many of the deaths.

But film of the attack showed not only Hoonanian gunning down Sarkissian, but he and the other gunmen later shooting what appeared to be indiscriminately in the chamber. Parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, his deputy Yuri Bakhshian, and Leonard Petrosian, the minister for operative issues, were among those killed.

The gunmen's televised statement was a condition of the surrender agreement with Kocharian. In it, they said they had acted because Armenia had become an impoverished nation whose citizens were increasingly being forced into exile.

It was not clear, however, whether the gunmen acted on behalf of a particular political purpose or simply out of desperation. Armenian government officials (unnamed) said this morning that the attack on the parliament was not political in intent.

Earlier this morning, also speaking on TV, Kocharian publicly guaranteed the gunmen's personal safety and pledged they would have a fair trial.