According to the Armenian Defense Ministry, the fire erupted early on January 19 at the makeshift barracks in a border village in eastern Gegharkunik province that housed 22 soldiers of an engineer-sapper company. Citing the preliminary findings of investigators, 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.
Another military officer serving in the village effectively dismissed this theory, however. He insisted that no gasoline was stored in or just outside the two-room village house turned into the barracks.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, the commander of an Armenian army platoon is one of several dozen servicemen interrogated by the investigators in recent days. None of them has been indicted or charged so far, the office told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
It also said that the investigation is conducted under articles of the Criminal Code dealing with negligence and violation of safety rules.
The soldiers’ deaths sparked calls for the resignation of Papikian and even Pashinian. A group of opposition and civic activists rallied outside the main government building in Yerevan for that purpose on Monday.
Alen Simonian, the Armenian parliament speaker and a Pashinian ally, dismissed the resignation calls and put the blame on eight senior military officers sacked just hours after the fire.
“The defense minister has nothing to do with this because as far as his duties are concerned, he has done his job well,” Simonian told reporters. He said that Papikian has embarked on serious “reforms” aimed at minimizing such noncombat incidents.
Human rights activists monitoring the country’s armed forces say they have seen little evidence of such reforms. They and other critics have pointed to the poor conditions of the dead and injured soldiers’ service.
“If they can secretly allocate $500,000 for buying new cars for the prime minister and his wife, if they can spend $2 million on decorating this square [for New Year’s celebrations,] don’t they have the funds to provide soldiers defending us with decent accommodation?” said Menua Soghomonian, one of the activists who demonstrated outside Pashinian’s office.