By Ruzanna Stepanian, Irina Hovannisian and Emil Danielyan
Law-enforcement authorities were hunting on Tuesday for gunmen that wounded the controversial mayor of Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri and killed three of his bodyguards in a drive-by shooting which they believe was an attempt on his life.
Two cars carrying Mayor Vartan Ghukasian, his top aides and bodyguards came under a hail of automatic gunfire shortly after they left Yerevan for Gyumri late on Monday. The gunshots were reportedly fired from another vehicle that overtook the motorcade on a highway linking the two cities.
Three of the men died on the spot, while another, Ghukasian’s driver, was taken to a hospital in Yerevan with a bullet in his head and remained in a critical condition. “Everything is being done to save his life,” Suren Makarian, head of the hospital’s intensive care unit, told RFE/RL by phone. “Time will tell whether or not we will succeed.”
The mayor and his deputy Gagik Manukian were also hospitalized, but officials said their injuries were less serious. Ghukasian underwent an overnight surgery and was said to be recovering from a bullet wound in his abdomen.
The Armenian police, prosecutors and the National Security Service were quick to announce a joint criminal investigation into the latest in a series of high-profile shootings registered in Armenia over the past year.
The heads of the three law-enforcement agencies were summoned to an emergency meeting with President Robert Kocharian later in the day. A spokesman for Kocharian told RFE/RL that he instructed them to take “all necessary measures” to identify and track down the assailants.
A statement by the Office of the Prosecutor-General said that such measures are being taken. It said investigators found 72 spent cartridges from two assault rifles at the scene of the shooting. No arrests were reported as of Tuesday evening.
The fact that Ghukasian was shot on his way home from a high-level meeting of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which he is a senior member, added a political dimension to the deadly incident. The late-night meeting nominated the party’s top leader, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, for the post of prime minister which has been vacant since the March 25 death of Armenia’s previous Republican premier, Andranik Markarian.
In a written statement, the HHK’s ruling board condemned the “assassination attempt” and demanded that the law-enforcement bodies “swiftly identify and strictly punish the criminals.” The statement suggested political motives behind the shooting, describing it as an attempt to undermine the “stability of public life” in Armenia.
One member of the board, Ashot Aghababian, claimed that the crime was specifically directed against the HHK. “Why would it happen right after the board meeting?” he told RFE/RL.
The party spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, echoed the suspicion. “I don’t exclude that it was directed against the Republican Party,” he said.
But another, more influential Republican, Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, disagreed. “I see no connection between the [HHK] meeting and the incident,” Abrahamian told reporters. “Let’s not jump into conclusions. Let the law-enforcement bodies do their job,” he said.
Kocharian, meanwhile, avoided any public reaction to the shootings. Kocharian refused to answer any questions from journalists as he inaugurated a newly renovated museum in Yerevan on Tuesday morning.
Ghukasian, who has run the Gyumri municipality since 1999, was widely regarded as a protégé of Kocharian before joining the Sarkisian-led HHK in September last year. His relationship with the ruling party had been tense in the past, with the HHK strongly opposing and condemning as undemocratic Ghukasian’s most reelection in October 2005.
The Gyumri mayor is no stranger to controversy, having been accused by critics of leading a business clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition. He has also earned notoriety for his flamboyant behavior that has occasionally turned violent. In August 2005, for example, Ghukasian reportedly shot from a pistol at a group of Russian soldiers stationed in Gyumri after a drunken argument in a local restaurant belonging to his brother.
Ghukasian has also been dogged by corruption allegations that nearly cost him his job three years ago. Local prosecutors considered at the time launching criminal proceedings against him on charges of illegally renting out public office space to one of his close relatives.
Also in March 2004, an ad hoc government commission headed by the chief of Kocharian’s oversight service, Vahram Barseghian, claimed to have found “numerous abuses” in the distribution of thousands of new apartments built in the earthquake-ravaged city with the multimillion-dollar assistance of U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Ghukasian was personally implicated in those violations. But although the commission’s findings were publicly endorsed by Kocharian, the mayor was never prosecuted or sanctioned otherwise.
(Photolur photo: Vartan Ghukasian.)