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The Armenian government angrily rejected on Wednesday a senior U.S. official’s criticism of its post-election crackdown on the opposition, accusing him of “contributing to an escalation of political tension” in the country.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza on Monday described as “harsh and brutal” the government’s response to the March 1 opposition protests in Yerevan and criticized the ongoing mass arrests of supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.

“We’re astonished that even after his visit to Yerevan, after meeting with and hearing from various official and unofficial sources [late last week,] U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza could make such arbitrary statements,” Tigran Balayan, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, said in a statement. “Assigning such one-sided blame is unfounded and not helpful.”

Balayan defended the use of deadly force against thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters, repeating the government claims that many of them were “in possession of firearms and explosives.” “In that case, labeling the reaction of the government as ‘a crackdown on opposition protests’, or qualifying it as ‘harsh and brutal’ is incorrect,” he said. “This was not at all an attack by policemen on civilians.”

Bryza clarified late Tuesday that he believes “brutality occurred on both sides” as “there were people in the [opposition] crowd who did use violence.” But he stressed that the onus is on the Armenian authorities to resolve the country’s most serious political crisis in nearly a decade.

“It's ultimately a problem that has to be repaired by the government of Armenia, of course, and we call on the government of Armenia to cease arrests of political leaders and to restore the democratic momentum that was what had characterized Armenia's political development until the period just after this last election,” Bryza told RFE/RL in Washington. “So it's really up to the government of Armenia to take steps to restore this democratic momentum.”

The U.S. official also urged the administration of outgoing President Robert Kocharian to lift the state of emergency in Yerevan “as soon as possible” and to launch a “nationwide roundtable” of all major political groups, including the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. “What the specific topics would be is up to the participants, of course, but the process of them resolving their country's political future through discussions at the bargaining table rather than in the streets is the way to build a healthy democracy,” he said.

Ter-Petrosian said on Tuesday that he is ready to embark on a “dialogue” with the authorities so long as they accept the European Union’s calls to end emergency rule, release all political prisoners and allow an “independent investigation” into the March 1 clashes that left at least eight people dead.

“We support the idea of an independent investigation, and it's useful,” Bryza said. “But, that said, I think it'll be very difficult ever to assess exactly how the tragically violent events transpired. Now what we need to do is move forward: Repair the damage of the election by prosecuting people who used violence unlawfully or who were violating election law.”

Bryza further indicated that he does not take seriously Armenian law-enforcement officials’ claims that Ter-Petrosian resorted to a mass hypnosis of the population and other “psychological tricks” to drum up unexpectedly strong popular support for his bid to return to power. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian said last week that the alleged “psychological sabotage” of the nation could become part of the authorities’ coup case against the former Armenian president and his allies.

“Wow, that's quite a statement,” Bryza said. “Mr. Ter-Petrosian is obviously a very well-known politician who is very skillful in his oration, so he does have the ability to inspire people, and he was doing so through his repeated appearances at the demonstrations in Theater Square in Yerevan,” he added. “So that's what he was doing: He was being a politician.”
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