By Astghik BedevianVirtually no police officers sustained gun wounds in the March 1 clashes with opposition protesters, a senior pro-government lawmaker said on Thursday, contradicting the official rationale for the state of emergency imposed in Yerevan following Armenia’s disputed presidential election.
Former President Robert Kocharian claimed that eight policemen were shot and wounded by opposition gunmen as he imposed the three-week emergency rule and ordered tanks into the city center late on March 1.
“Firearms are being used [by the opposition,] and we are obliged to ensure the security of our citizens,” Kocharian said at a news conference broadcast live by Armenian television. “I signed the decree only after I was told about those eight wounded officers,” he added.
The Armenian authorities subsequently spoke of dozens of security personnel allegedly shot and wounded in the fierce clashes with thousands of opposition protesters that barricaded themselves around a sprawling street junction in downtown Yerevan. At least eight civilians and two interior troop servicemen were killed in the worst street violence in the country’s history.
According to Samvel Nikoyan, chairman of an Armenian parliamentary commission investigating the unrest, the police have now officially reported to the ad hoc body that security forces suffered only one casualty as a result of gunfire. Nikoyan referred to Tigran Abgarian, a 19-year-old interior troop conscript who was gravely wounded in the neck and died on April 10.
One of Abgarian’s commanders also died on the spot. The police say he was killed by an explosive device thrown by one of the angry protesters.
More than 100 opposition members and supporters were arrested in the wake of the clashes. None of them was charged with killing either interior troop serviceman.
Law-enforcement have also failed so far to clarify the circumstances in which the eight other, civilian, victims lost their lives, raising more questions about the credibility of the official theory of the unrest. At least some of those victims are believed to have been shot dead by the time Kocharian held his late-night news conference. The then Armenian president claimed that security forces confronting the opposition crowd are not armed.
The Armenian authorities insist that opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian instigated the clashes as part of a broader plot to use the February 19 presidential election for bringing down the government. Ter-Petrosian and his associates strongly deny this, saying that Kocharian and his controversially elected successor, Serzh Sarkisian, deliberately used deadly force against opposition protesters to stay in power.
While admitting the significant discrepancy between Kocharian’s March 1 claims and the fresh police casualty data, Nikoyan defended the imposition of emergency rule in the capital. “I believe that the decision by the president of the republic to declare a state of emergency was totally justified,” he told RFE/RL. “In my view, if it was introduced an hour earlier maybe we would have less tragic consequences.”
Nikoyan, who is a senior member of the governing Republican Party, insisted that his commission did try to question Kocharian. “I think that it would be right for everyone who had anything to do with the March 1 events to share the information they have with the commission,” he said.
Nikoyan complained that Ter-Petrosian has ignored his commission’s written requests to give testimony. But he admitted that no such requests were sent to Kocharian.