Riot police stopped more than 100 people from marching to a police station in Yerevan on Monday evening in support of armed opposition activists that have seized it to demand the release of their jailed leader.
The small crowd gathered in the city’s Liberty Square amid a continuing standoff between security forces and the gunmen holding four police officers hostage at the police compound in the southern Erebuni suburb since Sunday morning.
Davit Sanasarian, a well-known opposition activist, and several other young men were detained on the spot moments after urging the protesters to march to Erebuni. The protesters tried to do so even after the detentions but were stopped by riot police just outside the square.
General Hunan Poghosian, the first deputy chief of the Armenian police, arrived at the scene to urge the crowd to avoid “imprudent” actions. “Please do not create unnecessary tension,” he said.
Poghosian argued that security forces are continuing to negotiate with the dozen or so members of the radical opposition group Founding Parliament to try to resolve the hostage crisis.
He assured the protesters that the Armenian authorities have no plans to use force against the hostage takers. The latter are demanding that the authorities release Zhirayr Sefilian, the Founding Parliament leader arrested last month on charges of illegal arms possession. They also want President Serzh Sarkisian to resign.
The protesters reluctantly agreed to walk back into the square moments later. Tension eased further after Poghosian ordered his officers to immediately release two of the detained activists. He said all other individuals taken into police custody will be set free later in the evening.
More than a dozen other people were detained early in the afternoon when they tried to demonstrate near the seized Erebuni compound cordoned off by security forces. An RFE/RL reporter was hit by a policeman in the chest while covering the proceedings.
The police allowed the evening march from Liberty Square only after other activists promised to confine it to downtown Yerevan and steer clear of Erebuni.
“They are not terrorists,” one of those activists, Maxim Sargsian, said of the Founding Parliament gunmen that killed one police officer and wounded four others during Sunday’s attack.
“The authorities must understand that they forced those people to take such a step,” Sargsian told the crowd before it marched through the city center, chanting “Freedom!”
Sargsian and Avetik Ishkanian, a prominent human rights activist who also addressed the protesters, demanded that law-enforcement authorities avoid forcibly retaking the seized police building and freeing the hostages.
Ishkhanian also condemned as illegal the brief detentions of more than 100 members and supporters of Founding Parliament carried out on Monday and Sunday.
Several dozen protesters, most of them young men, managed to reach the cordoned area in Erebuni at around midnight. They chanted “Sefilian!” as they approached a row of policemen in full riot gear. The commander of Armenian interior troops, General Levon Yeranosian, and other senior security officials could be seen standing behind the policemen.
The protesters did not attempt to break through the police cordon.