Armenian security forces arrested 10 people and claimed to have found a big weapons cache on Wednesday during a dawn raid on a Yerevan house which they said averted a series of “particularly grave crimes.”
The Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS) described the detainees, among them four women, as members of a “criminal association” led by Artur Vartanian, a 34-year-old Armenian national who is said to have lived in Spain since 1997.
In a statement, the NSS claimed that Vartanian returned to Armenia in April to set up the gang that would commit the planned crimes. It said he managed to recruit 19 “mainly unemployed people” across Armenia for that purpose.
The NSS did not specify what exactly Vartanian plotted to do and whether he had any political motives. Its statement listed instead large quantities of weapons and ammunition which it said were stashed in the raided house in Yerevan’s Nork district. Those included 10 Kalashnikov rifles, 60 hand grenades, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers and two makeshift explosive devices.
The suspects were apparently inside the house when special police and NSS units broke into it early in the morning. Masked and heavily armed officers escorted them out of the house a few hours later.
Residents of neighboring homes said they heard gunshots and explosions at the start of the operation. “We were sleeping when it all started,” one man told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “I thought it was fireworks.”
Gayane Hakhverdian, another local resident, said the house belongs to her sister’s family. “They had serious financial problems and had to rent out this house through a middleman a month ago,” she said.
“We didn’t know how many people lived here,” said another neighbor. “They came and went. Nor did we see or socialize with them.”
Several locals suggested that some of the tenants and their visitors might be Diaspora Armenians, pointing to their Armenian dialects.
Surprisingly, the security forces did not seal the house after they finished searching it. Journalists and neighbors had no trouble entering it moments later. Among the objects lying there were banners and emblems of an obscure Armenian nationalist group that announced its existence on Facebook early this year.
The group is called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment) and led by a man also called Artur Vartanian. A video posted on Facebook in February showed a uniform-clad Vartanian reading out a statement in front of nine other armed men who also wore army fatigues. The group claimed that it was filmed in Kessab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria that was overrun by Islamist rebels in March 2014 and subsequently recaptured by Syrian government troops.
Vartanian said in the footage that they have set up the Armenian Shield to put up “armed resistance to terrorists” threatening Armenians in the face of the world’s “criminal silence” on Syria. “Our aim is to ensure the security of the Armenian nation,” he declared.
Meanwhile, President Serzh Sarkisian praised the security operation when he met with the head of the NSS, Gorik Hakobian, and the national police chief, Vladimir Hakobian, later on Wednesday. “Armenia must remain one of the safest countries in the world,” he said at the meeting. “In our country, there must be no events that could somehow undermine the country’s reputation, including in this area.”
According to the presidential press office, Sarkisian also said that “ongoing geopolitical developments” require a tightening of security in Armenia. The Armenian authorities will therefore continue to take “preventive measures” for that purpose, he said.