At least 144 people were hospitalized with burns after mass explosions of campaign balloons during a pre-election concert and rally held in Yerevan’s main square by President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) late on Friday.
Eyewitnesses, including an RFE/RL cameraman, Sevak Grigorian, said hundreds of gas-filled balloons held up by young HHK activists at Republic Square exploded, sparking a massive firewall and injuring dozens of them. Grigorian described cries in the crowd and chaotic scenes resulting in a brief stampede that nearly caused him to lose his camera.
“It was a huge blaze,” said one woman at the scene.
About two dozen ambulances were rushed to the scene shortly after the blasts. An ambulance doctor told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that some 50 mostly young people required hospitalization.
Citing “preliminary data,” the Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations put the total number of injured and hospitalized people at 144. In a written statement, the ministry said they are receiving urgent treatment at eight Yerevan hospitals.
An RFE/RL correspondent saw many of them outside a Yerevan hospital specializing in treatment of burns. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian visited the hospital later in the evening. He spoke of only about 50 persons injured in the blasts.
“These are mostly light burns,” the premier told RFE/RL’s Armenian service outside the hospital. “Some of the victims have already received first assistance and gone home.”
The Armenian police were quick to launch an investigation. The chief of Yerevan’s police department, General Nerses Nazarian, suggested that the explosions were most probably triggered by a cigarette or a lighter. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Nazarian all but ruled out the possibility of deliberate arson. “It was apparently an accident,” he said.
Despite the chaos and mass injuries, the HHK campaign event was interrupted by only several minutes, with the show moderator downplaying the accident and urging thousands of people standing in the sprawling square to stay on.
President Sarkisian addressed the crowd shortly afterwards. He did not mention the unprecedented emergency in his speech. The concert continued after the speech.
Sarkisian visited one of the Yerevan hospitals later on Friday. State television showed him entering hospital wards and inquiring about the condition of young people treated there. Some of them visibly suffered severe injuries to their faces and hands.
In an ensuing written address to the nation, the Armenian president called for calm and pledged to identify and punish those responsible for what he called a “blow to all of us.” “Thank God, we avoided irreversible consequences,” he said. “At this moment, all the victims are receiving the necessary assistance and, if need be, the best specialists from abroad will be invited to Armenia for their further recovery.”
“Law-enforcement bodies have launched an investigation and the guilty will be identified and held accountable in a manner defined by law,” added Sarkisian.
The chief of the Armenian police, Vladimir Gasparian, issued corresponding instructions to senior police officials at a late-night emergency meeting. A police spokesman, Ashot Aharonian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that Gasparian ordered them to “work through the night, examine all theories and have the full picture of the incident.”