Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) on Thursday shed no further light on Wednesday’s arrests in Yerevan of 12 members of an alleged militant group, saying only that they will not be used against opposition groups.
At least ten of those suspects were detained in a dawn raid on a house in the city’s Nork suburb that was conducted by the NSS and the Armenian police. The security forces claimed to have found there large quantities of weapons which they said were due to be used for “grave crimes” planned by the “criminal association.” It remains unclear just what the arrested persons, among them four women, planned to carry out.
Security in and outside some government buildings in Yerevan was visibly tightened on Thursday. In particular, police officers armed with automatic weapons guarded the entrances to Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian’s office and the Armenian parliament.
Surprisingly, the security forces did not seal the Yerevan house after searching it for several hours, allowing reporters and residents of nearby homes to enter it. They also leaked footage of the raid to media outlets thought to be loyal to the government.
Some of those online news services speculated that the arrested people are linked to the New Armenia Public Salvation Front, a coalition of radical opposition forces that plan to use the December 6 referendum on President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional changes for trying to topple him.
New Armenia, which plans to launch a “civil disobedience” campaign on December 1, angrily denied those reports. “Opposition representatives have acted and will act within the bounds of the law,” one of its leaders, Armen Martirosian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The demonstrative character of the NSS operation also prompted criticism from the Armenian National Congress (HAK), a more moderate opposition party also campaigning against the proposed changes. Its deputy chairman, Levon Zurabian, blasted a report which noted that one of the arrested men had a poster urging a “No” vote in the upcoming referendum.
“With such dirty tricks, the authorities want to equate terrorism with the No campaign,” Zurabian said.
The NSS chief, Gorik Hakobian, insisted, however, that the authorities will not exploit the high-profile case to bully or pressurize the opposition. “Instead of making strange comments, they should thank the officers who conducted the special operation,” he told the Armenpress news agency.
Hakobian said that the operation neutralized “monstrous dangers” that awaited Armenia. He did not elaborate.
The arrested people are presumably members of the Armenian Shield Regiment, an obscure nationalist group that announced its existence on social media early this year. The group’s leader, Artur Vartanian, said in a Facebook video that its main mission is to “ensure the security of the Armenian nation.”