By Karine Kalantarian
A car belonging to the chief of the Armenian customs, Armen Avetisian, was rocked by an explosion early on Thursday in what law-enforcement authorities see as a botched attempt on the influential official’s life.
President Robert Kocharian called an emergency meeting of his top law-enforcement officials, ordering them to take “all necessary measures to solve the incident” and keep him informed about the course of the investigation.
The blast occurred outside the building in downtown Yerevan housing the State Customs Committee just minutes after Avetisian entered his office. Investigators said an explosive device was planted under a tree next to which his car was parked.
The expensive BMW was not seriously damaged. An aide to Avetisian and another customs official who stood nearby were said to have sustained minor injuries.
Still, residents of nearby apartment buildings said the blast was powerful. “I thought that the balcony above us fell down,” said one woman.
“It was really powerful,” confirmed Henrik Hakobian, a local shop owner.
The chief of the Armenian police, Hayk Harutiunian, and the first deputy head of the National Security, Hrachya Harutiunian, personally inspected the scene but declined to comment on the incident.
“Nothing is known yet,” the head of Yerevan’s police department, Nerses Nazarian, told reporters. He said Avetisian has told investigators that he does suspect anyone of seeking to assassinate him.
The Office of Prosecutor-General launched criminal proceedings under an article of Armenia’s Criminal Code that deals with attempted assassinations of senior government officials and public figures. The Customs Committee also characterized the explosion as an attempt on Avetisian’s life in a statement issued later on Thursday.
The statement attributed it to a crackdown on smuggling and tax evasion announced by the authorities earlier this year. “To all those who hope to weaken the committee leadership’s will to fight against the shadow [economy] with such terrorist acts we find it necessary to say that the State Customs Committee will continue to be consistent in identifying violations of customs rules,” it said.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian also condemned the blast as he opened a weekly cabinet meeting. “Nobody should hope that they can hamper the work of the bodies collecting state revenues with such actions,” he said.
The crackdown was announced after Kocharian’s high-profile meetings with the management of the customs and tax agencies. In particular, Kocharian decried widespread corruption among customs officials, accusing them of helping large-scale importers avoid taxes in return for kickbacks.
The criticism dealt a further blow to Avetisian, who is widely seen as a protégé of powerful Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. His conspicuous personal wealth has long raised eyebrows in the impoverished country.
Customs administration is a major source of complaints from Armenian businessmen. Many of them routinely accuse customs officials of abusing their controversial legal authority to determine the market value of imported goods and giving preferential treatment to their cronies. However, businessmen rarely go public with such complaints.