Protests in Yerevan escalate as hostage crisis enters fifth day

Protests in Yerevan escalate as hostage crisis enters fifth day
Many Armenians sympathise with the attackers' plea, while rejecting their violent means.
By bne IntelliNews July 21, 2016

Some 45 people were injured in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, where 200 backers of an armed group that took control of a police station on Sunday clashed with law enforcement forces on July 20 as they tried to approach the station, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Armenian service reported.

The standoff in the Armenian capital began when an armed group of war veterans stormed a police station, taking eight policemen hostage and demanding the release of opposition leader Jiray Sefilian, the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the institution of a temporary committee to govern the country. One police officer was killed and five others were wounded in the initial standoff, as authorities moved to control traffic into the capital city, block social media and detain some 50 Armenians on the streets of Yerevan. All over the country, some 200 have been arrested according to human rights groups, and there have been reports of police abuse. Residents of the street where the occupied police station is have complained that they are no longer supplied with utilities and cannot use public transport anymore. 

The attackers continue to hold the station as negotiations with authorities are continuing. Four policemen remain hostage, after four have been released in the last three days.

The crowd of 200 reportedly consisted mainly of young men, who became violent after police rejected their demand to deliver food to the attackers through opposition MP Nikol Pashinian. The hostage takers have reportedly refused food from law enforcement forces fearing food poisoning. Protesters attacked a police cordon blocking access to the occupied station with rocks; law enforcement responded with stun grenades. Some 25 officers and 20 civilians were injured. Among the latter was Movses Shaverdian, the leader of the socialist party in the country, who is being treated for head wounds, Tass news agency reported.  

A critic of the Sargsyan administration himself, Pashinian has played an important role in mediating between authorities and the armed group, which comprises mainly of veterans of the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. He urged protesters on July 20 to refrain from violence, but some protesters proceeded to build barricades on a central street around midnight.

Many Armenians sympathise with the attackers' plea, while rejecting their violent means. Widespread disenchantment with government corruption, nepotism, poverty, rigged elections and rising utility rates has led to several uprisings in Yerevan in recent years, most recently the 2015 demonstrations dubbed Electric Yerevan that saw thousands take to the streets to protest against electricity tariff hikes and perceived corruption and mismanagement at the Russian-owned electric utility ENA.  

High-ranking officials in Armenia, including Sargsyan, have not made any public statements about the crisis. Unlike them, US ambassador Richard Mills publicly called for Armenians to respect the rule of law, Armenpress reported.