Violence Mars Local By Election in Armenia

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenian authorities have scrapped a local by-election in the capital–Yerevan–after a violent incident disrupted voting at two polling stations on Sunday.

Witnesses said armed supporters of a pro-government candidate running for the post of the head of the city’s Ajapnyak administrative district beat up and opened fire at proxies of another candidate. At least eight people were reported seriously injured and taken to hospital. Armenian state television showed the troubled electoral precinct stained with blood and littered with smashed furniture.

The attackers were reportedly linked to businessman Ashot Aghababian–who represents Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia.

They targeted proxies of Aghababian’s main challenger in Ajapnyak–Artsrun Khachatrian–who is a former deputy head of the district administration. He is a member of the local branch of the Yerkrapah Union of the Karabakh war veterans–which is controlled by the Republican Party and also led by Sargsyan. Dozens of Khachatrian’s angry supporters immediately took to the streets–blocking one of Yerevan’s main bridges. Special police forces were seen heading for the trouble spot following the incident.

Television pictures showed Armenia’s Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian promising the crowd to punish the guilty. Abrahamian told reporters on Monday that one man has been arrested in connection with the incident and that an official inquiry is underway. The arrested man works at a retail market managed by Aghababian. Abrahamian also said a local police chief has been relieved of his duties.

The two hostile camps on Monday offered different versions of what happened. An official in one of the two electoral precincts said he "ran away" after a group of Aghababian’s men armed with Kalashnikov guns attacked their opponents. Clashes continued in a local Yerkrapah office where the two sides met for negotiations.

One witness told RFE/RL that Aghababian shouted that "the prime minister stands by me" as his men wreaked havoc in the office which still contained traces of blood. But Aghababian denied the allegations saying that he does not who was behind the attacks. "I really don’t know who was firing and what for," he told reporters. The senior Republican put the blame on Khachatrian’s activists who he said stirred up trouble after realizing their candidate’s imminent defeat. Aghababian–generally known to the Armenian public by the nickname "Burnash," has earned notoriety for his controversial involvement in past Armenian elections–frequently marred with violence and alleged vote-rigging. During last year’s presidential election–Aghababian was reportedly behind an attack on proxies of presidential candidate Karen Demirchian.

Republican Party chairman Andranik Markarian described yesterday’s incident as "outrageous" but said it will not cause splits within the party.

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