President Serzh Sarkisian on Friday urged radical opposition gunmen holed up in a police station in Yerevan to free their hostages and surrender to Armenian law-enforcement authorities, saying that he will not meet their key demands, including his own resignation.
He said he can only guarantee that the armed members of a radical opposition group will be treated by the authorities in accordance with the law and protected against possible acts of “personal revenge.”
“In Armenia, issues will not be solved through violence or hostage taking. We will never allow that,” Sarkisian said in his first public comments made since the July 17 seizure of the police building in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district.
“The hostages must be freed,” he said at another emergency meeting with Armenia’s top law-enforcement officials. “The armed group must lay down its weapons.”
“True, there are many disaffected people in Armenia,” he went on. “But let no one make a mistake and think that they can exploit an occasion or a cause to corrode the foundations of our statehood.”
The hostage-takers, who killed one police officer and seriously wounded four others during the attack, are primarily demanding the release of the Founding Parliament leader, Zhirayr Sefilian, who was arrested last month for allegedly plotting an armed revolt. They also want Sarkisian to step down.
Echoing statements by other senior government and law-enforcement officials, Sarkisian insisted that the authorities remain committed to achieving a peaceful end to the hostage crisis threatening to destabilize the political situation in Armenia. “We are acting and will be acting patiently,” he said.
The president indicated at the same time that that patience is wearing thin. “We have no right to let hour entire society become hostage to this tension,” he warned.
“I think that this situation has already lasted longer than we can afford,” he added, pointing to the risk of renewed hostilities along the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontlines around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Founding Parliament, which favors a hard line on the Karabakh conflict, accuses Sarkisian of planning to make Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The nationalist group has repeatedly said that Sarkisian’s readiness to accept such a compromise peace deal is the main reason for regime change sought by it.
The two dozen or so gunmen urged Armenians to join their anti-government “rebellion” immediately after capturing the Erebuni police building early on Sunday. So far only a few hundred people have taken to the streets in support of the hostage-takers. More 130 of them were detained after clashing with riot police on Wednesday night.
In an apparent appeal to the gunmen’s sympathizers, Sarkisian said Armenians should react to the hostage situation in a “solely peaceful” manner. He said he has instructed law-enforcement bodies, accused of using excessive force against some protesters, of showing “utmost restraint.”
Two prominent Karabakh Armenians, Archbishop Pargev Martirosian and the retired General Vitaly Balasanian, on Thursday reportedly visited the seized compound and negotiated with the gunmen, apparently on behalf of the authorities. One of the gunmen’s leaders, Varuzhan Avetisian, told the “168 Zham” newspaper afterwards that they continue to demand Sarkisian’s resignation.