Samvel Babayan, a retired general seeking to run for president of Nagorno-Karabakh, has effectively accused a key political rival of organizing an armed attack on his supporters in Armenia.
In a statement, Babayan’s office said that a group of his associates and supporters were stopped and shot by other men on a highway in eastern Armenia early on Wednesday. It claimed that the “gangs” that opened fire “serve” Arayik Harutiunian, Karabakh’s former prime minister and one of the main candidates in a presidential election that will be held in the Armenian-populated territory next year.
Babayan’s team threatened to respond “with the same methods” if law-enforcement bodies fail to punish the attackers.
Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland party was quick to strongly deny any involvement in the reported attack. It also accused Babayan of resorting to “blackmail.”
“There are no gangs in Artsakh (Karabakh),” Davit Babayan, a senior Karabakh official, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Thursday. He at the same time called for an “in-depth investigation” of the incident.
The Armenian police said they launched an investigation even before Babayan’s office released the statement. “We took and are continuing to take necessary operational-investigative measures to ascertain the identity and whereabouts of the participants of the incident as well as all circumstances of what happened,” said a police spokesman.
The head of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), Artur Vanetsian, told reporters later in the day that “the case has been fully solved.” Vanetsian said the incident resulted from a financial dispute between “two groups of individuals” but did not elaborate.
Babayan, 53, was the commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He expressed his intention to join the Karabakh presidential race in February.
The Karabakh constitution stipulates that only those individuals who have resided in Karabakh for the past 10 years can participate in the 2020 presidential election. Babayan does not meet this requirement, having mainly lived in Armenia and Russia since 2004.
In March, the once powerful general started collecting signatures of Karabakh residents in a bid to circumvent this legal hurdle. He has since repeatedly accused the authorities in Stepanakert of impeding his participation in the 2020 election. The authorities have dismissed those claims.
Bako Sahakian, the Karabakh president, will not be seeking reelection next year. He has yet to say who his preferred successor is.