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By Astghik Bedevian
The chairman of the Armenian Football Federation (AFF), Ruben Hayrapetian, denied Wednesday any involvement in an apparent arson attack on a car belonging to the editor of a sports newspaper that has criticized him in recent weeks.

The expensive SUV parked outside the Yerevan offices of Suren Baghdasarian’s “Football-Plus” weekly caught fire late Tuesday after unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail onto one of its front seats through a broken window. The blaze gutted the car’s interior.

Eyewitnesses reportedly saw several men flee the scene in a car with Georgian license plates. Police launched an inquiry into the incident but has not arrested or charged anyone so far.

Baghdasarian, who is also a veteran TV commentator of football games, was quick to point the finger at Hayrapetian. “Everyone, including myself, suspects him in the first instance,” he told RFE/RL. “My relations with him have been tense of late.”

A front-page story on in the Wednesday issue of “Football-Plus” alleged a “cheap act of revenge” for its editor’s condemnation of last month’s scandalous refusal by Armenia’s soccer champions Pyunik Yerevan to play a top Azerbaijani team in Moscow.

“This is nonsense, yet another blackmail by Suren Baghdasarian” retorted Hayrapetian. “Let Suren Baghdasarian look [for the guilty] among individuals who order him to work against me. They are definitely not government officials. They are from the sport world.”

The AFF chief, who has extensive business interests and is a member of the Armenian parliament, did not specify who he thinks was behind the attack. He also said he will file a libel suit against Baghdasarian.

Pyunik, which is sponsored and controlled by Hayrapetian, unexpectedly pulled out of the semi-finals of the CIS Cup, citing the Russian organizers’ failure to guarantee the security of its players. The two teams had already faced each other in the same tournament in January 2005. The match, won by Neftchi Baku, was marred by brawls between rival players and fans.

Hayrapetian sought to disavow Pyunuk’s hasty return to Yerevan. But few in Armenia believe that the club managers made the decision without his consent. “Football-Plus” and several other Armenian newspapers accused the club of cowardice.

The arson attack came one week after a tense meeting of the AFF’s governing board, of which Baghdasarian has been a member. The editor resigned from the board afterwards, claiming that Hayrapetian insulted and tried to hit him during the meeting.

Baghdasarian is not the first Armenian editor targeted by an arson attack. A car belonging to Nikol Pashinian of the country’s best-selling daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” was completely destroyed in a similar fashion in November 2004. Pashinian blamed the attack on Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman close to President Robert Kocharian. The latter laughed off the allegations.

Incidentally, Tsarukian and Hayrapetian are known to be friends. The two feared “oligarchs” ride in eye-catching motorcades and are always surrounded by burly “bodyguards.”

Meanwhile, the AFF is having to deal with the tricky issue of organizing the first-ever games between the national teams of Armenia and Azerbaijan. They are due to play twice against each other after being drawn last month in the same Group A of the qualifying competition for the 2008 European football championship. The two South Caucasus arch-rivals disagree on where the politically charged matches should take place. The Armenian side wants them to be played in Baku and Yerevan, while Azerbaijani football authorities are pushing for a “neutral” venue on the grounds that anti-Armenian sentiment runs high in their country.

“We have sent a letter to [European football’s governing body] UEFA in which we reiterated that Armenia’s supreme leadership can guarantee the Azerbaijani team’s security,” said AFF spokesman Arayik Manukian. “We are at the same time ready to go to Azerbaijan and play in Baku first provided that we get appropriate security guarantees.”

According to Manukian, the UEFA leadership supports the Armenian position. “The tournament rules do not envisage games in neutral fields,” he said. “This means they are obliged to ensure our security and host the game.”

(Photolur photo: Baghdasarian standing by his damaged car.)
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