By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Three soldiers were killed in an overnight shooting in the northern city of Vanadzor which is bound to rekindle public concerns about chronic crime and violence in the Armenian armed forces.
Military officials said the conscripts guarded the equipment depot of a local military base when they came under automatic gunfire. A brief statement by the Armenian Defense Ministry said they were gunned down by “unknown individuals.” It did not identify the victims or clarify further circumstances of the incident.
Law-enforcement authorities launched a criminal inquiry, with the chief Military Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian rushing to the site of the shooting reported early in the morning. Jahangirian told RFE/RL afterwards that the investigators have made “some progress” in identifying and tracking down the assailants, but refused to give details.
Police reportedly sealed off the area around the military unit and were seen scouring the site with sniffer dogs. The Defense Ministry statement said the military prosecutors believe that the killings were premeditated. Jahangirian denied though that they were part of an attempted armed robbery.
A local human rights activist, Artur Sakunts, said according to his information, the three soldiers were shot as they slept in a small barracks designed for warehouse sentries. He said the building was burned down together with their bodies.
“All three boys were from Yerevan,” Sakunts told RFE/RL from Vanadzor. “According to my preliminary information, two of them were brothers.”
Other unofficial sources, meanwhile, claimed that the shootings occurred after a quarrel among the soldiers. But Sakunts said one of the victims phoned his mother several hours before his death and did not indicate any trouble.
The Vanadzor garrison of the Armenian army had acquired notoriety in February 2002 when a soldier at one of its units was beaten to death by fellow conscripts. Artyom Sargsian, 22, died after spending two days in agonizing pain, deprived of medical assistance. Doctors at a local military hospital initially concluded that he was killed by food poisoning. But they were subsequently accused of covering up the crime.
The Armenian army has been plagued with violent and deadly incidents ever since its creation in 1992. The widespread bullying and mistreatment of its conscripts has been regularly highlighted by domestic and international human rights groups.
The Defense Ministry insists that the army crime rate has been steadily declining in recent years. The ministry reported 56 non-combat deaths of soldiers in 2001, down from 64 such cases registered in 2000. But according to a 2002 report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, “no serious reform was undertaken to reduce brutality in the Armenian military.”