The United States said on Monday that it will consider helping Armenian law-enforcement authorities investigate political assassinations and other terrorist attacks in Armenia that were allegedly plotted by 21 people arrested last week.
Ten of them were detained when security forces raided a house in Yerevan and claimed to have found a weapons cache there last Wednesday. Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that the suspects are part of a clandestine organization that was about to carry out high-profile killings and other “unprecedented” crimes.
“We are closely following the detention of 21 individuals in connection with an alleged conspiracy to commit political assassinations and other terrorist acts in Armenia,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said in a written statement to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“We are not aware that these detentions relate to any threats against American citizens in Armenia at this time. Nonetheless these allegations are serious, and the United States will consider Armenian requests to aid in its investigation,” it said without elaborating.
The U.S. mission also urged the authorities in Yerevan to be “as transparent as possible in reporting on the progress of this investigation.”
Neither the NSS nor other Armenian law-enforcement bodies have reported any requests for U.S. assistance to their ongoing investigation. It remains to be seen whether they will link the arrested Armenians nationals with any foreign individuals or groups.
The alleged ringleader in the case, Artur Vartanian, claims to have participated in the “liberation” of Kessab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria that was overrun by Islamist rebels in March 2014.A senior NSS official confirmed on Friday that Vartanian had visited Syria. He said the investigators are now trying to establish whether the 34-year-old is connected with any of the armed groups active in the war-torn nation.
Vartanian set up early this year a nationalist group called the Armenian Shield Regiment. At least some of the other detainees are thought to be affiliated with it.
Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, said on Monday that his client denies the grave accusations levelled by the NSS. Baghdasarian at the same time acknowledged that Vartanian and his associates possessed the large number of firearms and explosives that were confiscated by the NSS during Wednesday’s raid.
“The arms cache did exist,” Baghdasarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “There were weapons and ammunition in the house during the raid. It’s a fact.”
Baghdasarian insisted, however, that those weapons were “not directed against Armenia and its citizens.” This is why, he said, the security forces met with no armed resistance.
The lawyer declined to explain why the militant group accumulated the weapons and how it planned to use them.
It also emerged that the detainees include Father Anton Totonjian, a 70-year-old Armenian Catholic priest from Gyumri, and Lilit Torosian, a 30-year-old journalist who was also based in Armenia’s second largest city. They both worked for a local Catholic radio station that interviewed Vartanian earlier this year.
According to defense attorneys, both Totonjian and Torosian deny any involvement in the alleged terror plot.