According to the Armenian Defense Ministry, the fire erupted early on Thursday at the makeshift barracks in a border village in eastern Gegharkunik province that housed 22 soldiers of an engineer-sapper company.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Defense Minister Suren Papikian said hours later that it was sparked by an officer who poured gasoline into a woodstove in breach of the military’s fire-safety rules.
Armenia’s chief military prosecutor, Grigor Elizbarian, echoed that theory in an interview with Armenian Public Television aired on Thursday evening. But he said at the same time that forensic tests will determine whether the blaze was caused by gasoline or less inflammable diesel.
Another junior military officer serving in the village insisted that no gasoline was stored in or just outside the two-room village house turned into the barracks.
The official version of events was also questioned by some civil society members, opposition figures and other critics of Pashinian’s government. They said, in particular, Pashinian drew the conclusion before the completion of a criminal investigation launched by law-enforcement authorities.
“First of all, it is suspicious that only one theory, voiced by the prime minister and the defense minister, is being considered,” said Edgar Khachatrian, a human rights activist monitoring the military. “This leaves me with the impression that the investigation is being directed.”
Elizbarian said in this regard that the investigators are open to considering other theories if they are backed up by concrete facts.
As of Friday evening, the investigators did not charge or arrest anyone in connection with what was one of the deadliest accidents ever registered in the Armenian army ranks. A spokesman for the Investigative Committee said they questioned about a dozen servicemen.
The army captain blamed for the fire was not among them. He is one of the three survivors seriously injured in the blaze and hospitalized as a result. Hospital officials said that he is still unable to give testimony.
A dozen other, more high-ranking officers were sacked on Thursday. They included Vahram Grigorian, the commander of the army’s Second Corps stationed in Gegharkunik.
The critics also decried the poor conditions of the dead and injured soldiers’ service. They pointed out that the one-story house where they stayed had no emergency exit and that its windows had railings that made it extremely hard for the soldiers to jump out of them to escape the fire.
Edmon Marukian, an ambassador-at-large and Pashinian’s political ally, claimed that the 22-member army unit moved into the village house on a temporary basis after its previous barracks were shelled and destroyed by Azerbaijani artillery fire in September 2022. The Investigative Committee said, however, that the soldiers have stayed there since May 2021.