Nobody has been arrested or charged more than two months after scores of people were injured in near-simultaneous explosions of thousands of balloons during an election campaign gathering organized by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), police said on Friday.
A senior police official insisted, nonetheless, that law-enforcement authorities have made substantial progress in a criminal investigation into the May 4 blasts that shocked the nation and overshadowed the HHK’s election campaign personally led by President Serzh Sarkisian.
The balloons went up in flames in still unclear circumstances, causing a huge ball of flames in Yerevan’s main Republic Square. At least 154 people, most of them young HHK members and supporters, were hospitalized with serious burns. Some of them underwent plastic surgery afterwards.
Arsen Ayvazian, a senior official from the police Directorate General of Criminal Investigations, said investigators have since questioned about 250 people but do not regard any of them as criminal suspects yet. He said they have discovered that the balloons were filled with inflammable natural gas at a single Yerevan apartment.
“They were filled from small gas tanks,” Ayvazian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We have established who, how and where filled the balloons and where those small gas tanks were filled.”
Azarian added that the individuals who pumped pressurized gas into some 7,000 balloons emblazoned with HHK logos have been questioned as “witnesses” in the case. He would not say if the police plan to bring criminal charges against them or any of the organizers of the HHK campaign event. Echoing earlier police assurances, he said only that all those responsible for the blasts will be brought to justice.
The law-enforcement official claimed in that context that Armenian law does not explicitly ban the use of inflammable gas for inflating balloons.
Safety standards around the world do require, however, balloons used for public events attended by a large number of people to be filled with helium, an inert gas that does not burn but is more expensive than natural gas.
Karen Avagian, the head of the HHK’s youth wing who personally escorted the youngsters to Republic Square, has dismissed suggestions that the ruling party deliberately ordered cheaper balloons to economize on campaign expenses. Avagian has also denied the HHK leadership’s responsibility for the incident. “Until that day, those balloons were on sale and nobody knew what they are filled with, how they are filled and who is responsible for that,” he said on May 15.
Still, some of the hospitalized participants were quoted in the Armenian press as saying that they were warned in advance not to light cigarettes at the May 4 gathering, which featured live performances by Armenian pop stars and a speech by President Sarkisian.
According to Ayvazian, the police investigators believe that the explosions were most probably triggered by fire from a cigarette lighter.