YEREVAN -- Thousands of opposition supporters have marched through Yerevan demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian as tensions remained high in the Caucasus country a day after the premier claimed an "attempted coup" by senior military officers.
Throngs of people waving Armenian flags and chanting anti-government slogans took to the streets of the capital on February 26 to vent their anger at Pashinian over his handling of last year's war with Azerbaijan, which many view as a national humiliation.
Armenia was plunged on February 25 into a fresh political crisis that prompted international concern as Pashinian defied the senior officers' call for his resignation, accusing the military in turn of an attempted coup and rallying thousands of his own supporters in Yerevan.
On February 26, former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, who has been put forward by the opposition as a replacement for Pashinian, called on all Armenians to join the protest.
"The people must take to the street and express their will so that we can avoid bloodshed and turmoil," he told participants at the rally in downtown Yerevan. Many opposition protesters spent the night outside parliament, where they have set up camps and barricades.
"Either we get rid of them," Manukian said, referring to Pashinian and his allies who control parliament, "or we will lose Armenia."
The marchers walked to the presidency and then to Pashinian's residence ahead of a meeting with President Armen Sarkisian later in the afternoon.
Pashinian has faced mounting protests and calls from the opposition for his resignation following a six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
A Russian-brokered cease-fire deal Pashinian signed in November brought an end to 44 days of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenian forces suffered territorial and battlefield losses from Azerbaijan's Turkish-backed military.
In a sign of Moscow's growing concern about the developments in Armenia, the Kremlin on February 26 reiterated that Armenia should comply with agreements reached with Azerbaijan. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to calm fears, telling a briefing that he saw "no threat" of a breakdown of the Nagorno-Karabakh deal.
Peskov's statement came a day after President Vladimir Putin called for calm during a phone call with Pashinian. Russia is a key ally of Armenia, which has a military base in the country.
The prime minister, who addressed some 20,000 supporters in the center of Yerevan on February 25, said Armenians would not allow the armed forces to interfere after top military brass joined opposition demands for his resignation.
Manukian has threatened around-the-clock protests until an extraordinary session of parliament meets to remove Pashinian and call early elections.
But a plan by the opposition factions to hold an emergency parliamentary session early on February 26 failed to materialize when the house speaker did not show up.
Pashinian's accusations of an attempted military coup came in reaction to a letter released early on February 25 by the general staff demanding he and his government resign.
But later, the Defense Ministry issued a statement declaring any involvement of the military in politics is “unacceptable."
Pashinian, whose My Step alliance holds a majority in parliament, has rejected opposition demands for early elections and called for consultations.
The brewing crisis has drawn international support for the civilian government and calls for restraint.
The United States, which has friendly ties with Armenia, warned the military and urged all sides to avoid violence.
"We remind all parties of the bedrock democratic principle that states' armed forces should not intervene in domestic politics," State Department spokesman Ned Price said on February 25.
The protesters have largely been peaceful, though earlier in the week two RFE/RL journalists were attacked. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said he was "disturbed" by the physical and verbal attack on journalists for Azatutyun, RFE/RL's Armenian Service.
“Our journalists are only trying to bring live news reporting to our audiences in Armenia. I call on Armenian law enforcement to make sure that journalists can do their jobs safely, and that the attackers are brought to justice,” Fly said.
Pashinian was forced to cede control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan that had been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s, a move that many Armenians were against.
In the letter from military officers, the general staff accused Pashinian and his government of bringing the country “to the brink of collapse” and said it “will no longer be able to make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people."
The letter expressed "resolute protest" against Pashinian’s dismissal a day earlier of Tiran Khachatrian, the first deputy chief of the General Staff, calling the prime minister’s reasons “short-sighted” and his action “an anti-state, irresponsible step.”
Khachatrian had earlier mocked Pashinian's analysis of Russian weapons used in the war against Azerbaijan.
The letter was signed by several dozen army officials, including Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparian.
Pashinian quickly moved to dismiss Gasparian following the letter’s publication, demanding President Armen Sarkisian sign a decree removing him or that Gasparian announce his resignation.
Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic, said he was taking urgent steps to try to defuse the crisis, calling on all involved to "show restraint and common sense."
The president's press service said on February 26 that he plans to meet with Gasparian as he looks "to mitigate tensions in the country and find peaceful solutions to the ongoing situation."
But Sarkisian's office said it could take up to three days for the president to decide whether he will sign the decree to remove Gasparian.