By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
Armenia’s opposition faced the worst ever government crackdown in the early hours of Tuesday after its peaceful demonstration in Yerevan was brutally dispersed by security forces using water cannons and stun grenades.
Thousands of people ran away in panic after being suddenly attacked by what appeared to be special baton-wielding police units. Scores of them were badly injured in the chaotic scenes. More precise information on the casualties was not immediately known.
The offices of the main opposition parties were reportedly ransacked and dozens of their activists arrested. At least three members of parliament affiliated with the Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party were said to be among them. And the editor of a leading pro-opposition newspaper, “Haykakan Zhamanak,” said one of his reporters, Avetis Babajanian, disappeared while another one, Hayk Gevorgian, was in intensive care in hospital after being beaten up by the police.
The violent showdown put an end to an eight-hour standoff between the demonstrators and the security forces on the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to President Robert Kocharian’s residence. Some 15,000 protesters marched towards the presidential palace from Freedom Square but were stopped by hundreds of riot police and interior troops. They did not attempt to break through the security barrier.
Tension eased as the protest, seen as the culmination of the opposition campaign for Kocharian’s resignation, turned into an open-air festivity, with jubilant participants dancing to pop and folk music tunes that blared through loudspeakers. There were still between 2,000 and 3,000 people on the scene at two o’clock in the morning when the attack began from at least two directions.
Deafening stun grenade explosions and jets of water quickly spread a panic after the police began indiscriminately beating the protesters. Some of them tried to fight back but were quickly overpowered by the advancing force helped by darkness. The grenades continued to be fired at the crowd even while it fled down the street only to be confronted by other police forces at the nearest intersection.
One man screamed in pain after being directly hit by a grenade. An eyewitness said a large group of police officers beat two fleeing protesters about 200 meters away from Baghramian Avenue.
Deprived of a safe retreat path, the opposition supporters ran chaotically in various directions, sneaking into smaller streets crossing Baghramian Avenue and their courtyards. About 30 people, among them two RFE/RL correspondents, scaled a wall to find refuge in the garden of a private house.
“They hit me with a truncheon and pumped gas,” said a young man with a bloodied face and a blanket wrapped around his body. “There were no soldiers among the attackers. They were all special police with red berets.”
Another man, a 56-year-old villager, also had ghastly wounds on his face. He said he was toppled and kicked by three security officers.
“They were hitting so hard. What they did was shameful,” an elderly woman recounted, crying.
The opposition supporters, too scared to speak loudly, were joined by AMK leader Artashes Geghamian and Artarutyun’s Aram Sarkisian moments later. The two bitter opponents of Kocharian were accompanied by a handful of bodyguards. They both described as “barbaric” the authorities’ response to the demonstrations and vowed to continue their campaign for regime change.
“I can say for certain that in this situation Mr. Kocharian will be unable to govern. It is impossible to break the people’s will with truncheons,” Geghamian told RFE/RL. “The people once again saw what the authorities are capable of.”
“This once again proved that Kocharian can not stay in this country and must go,” Sarkisian said for his part.
Both leaders said they were hit by the police. The third top opposition leader, Stepan Demirchian, was also in the crowd but escaped unscathed. According to Demirchian, “many” demonstrators were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Geghamian, Sarkisian and the rest of the fugitive group were then invited into the house by the hosts for safety reasons. Police cars, meanwhile, could be heard racing through the city center. Shocked and exhausted, the people sat there silently, hoping to leave the hideout after dawn. One of them, a villager from the northwestern region of Shirak, helped these correspondents find a safe way back to the newsroom.
In the meantime, police broke into the AMK headquarters, located across the street from RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau, arresting several people, including Geghamian’s deputy Aleskan Karapetian. Similar raids were reported by Sarkisian’s Hanrapetutyun Party and Demirchian’s People’s Party (HZhK). They said the police smashed office equipment and took away dozens of activists.
Apart from Karapetian, at least two other opposition lawmakers, Vartan Mkrtchian and Shavarsh Kocharian, were in police custody. Kocharian (no relation to the Armenian president) spoke with RFE/RL from a police van parked inside the parliament compound which also lies on Baghramian Avenue.
A police spokesman rejected the arrest numbers cited by the opposition as a fraud, but refused to provide any official figures. He said the information could be released later in the day. There were also no official statements explaining the excessive use of force.
Some of the opposition leaders said the crackdown will not stop the campaign of demonstrations. “We will definitely hold more rallies,” Sarkisian said. “I think entire Armenia will rise up. Kocharian has only accelerated his departure.”
However, Freedom Square, the main venue for the opposition rallies, was filled with scores of police officers and vehicles shortly after midnight and is unlikely to be available for further anti-Kocharian gatherings.