The Armenian police appeared to have deployed more officers in the northern town of Ijevan on Friday two days after clashing with local residents protesting against government efforts to end illegal logging in nearby forests.
The clashes broke out after several hundred protesters defied police orders to unblock a major highway passing through the administrative center of Armenia’s Tavush province. A dozen police officers and at least two civilians were hospitalized as a result.
Dozens of protesters were detained in the following hours on suspicion of violently attacking security forces. Thirteen of them remained under arrest on Friday. None was formally charged with any crime yet, according to the Investigative Committee.
A spokeswoman for the law-enforcement agency said investigators are continuing to hunt for 11 other individuals they believe were also involved in the violence.
The Armenian police chief, Valeri Osipian, and the director of the National Security Service (NSS), stayed in Ijevan throughout Thursday, meeting with their subordinates as well as residents of the town and nearby villages. Both men defended the use of force against the protesters.
“One of the police functions is to do preventive work,” Osipian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “That’s what we are doing at the moment.”
Vanetsian said, for his part, that the protest was a “provocation” organized by a handful of individuals, rather than an outburst of popular anger against the enforcement of a government ban on unauthorized logging, which has been the norm in Tavush for over two decades.
Police presence in Ijevan remained strong on Friday, with officers brought from other Armenian regions patrolling the town center in the morning. An RFE/RL correspondent saw about 50 busloads of riot police entering the town later in the day.
Relatives of some arrested protesters complained that they still know nothing about the whereabouts of their loved ones. They said the latter did not commit violent acts and must be freed.
The Tavush governor, Hayk Chobanian, insisted, meanwhile, that the situation in Ijevan is “much calmer today” and will stabilize further in the coming days. He said there will be no letup in the ongoing crackdown on illegal logging in the province bordering Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Chobanian dismissed complaints that logging is the main source of income for many local residents. He said the illegal practice has primarily benefited a small number of timber traders and government officials bribed by them.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who was born and raised in Ijevan, on Thursday ruled out any concessions to “the organizers of illegal logging” whom he blamed for the unrest. “We will stop illegal logging in the most resolute manner,” he said.
The government ban means that from now on locals will only be able to resell smaller amounts of wood legally purchased from a state forestry agency. Also, villagers will be provided with firewood for heating their homes in winter months.