Gunmen Free Hostages Surrender; Three Day Mourning Period Announced by President

YEREVAN (Reuters–Noyan Tapan)–Gunmen who killed Armenia’s prime minister–parliamentary speaker and other top officials in Armenia’s parliament freed their hostages and surrendered on Thursday.

Armenia’s army denounced the attack as a plot and demanded the dismissal of key security officials.

President Robert Kocharian declared a three-day mourning period and his office said the slain leaders – who included the speaker of parliament– would be buried on October 31–Russia’s Interfax news agency said.

Yerevan remained calm. The Defense Ministry called for ministers to be sacked but said this call was not intended as a challenge to constitutional authority.

The hostages left parliament after overnight negotiations which followed the assault. Eight people–including Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan–died on Wednesday when the gunmen’stormed into parliament and sprayed the chamber with bullets.

Some of the former hostages–along with the gunmen–were whisked away from the parliament on a bus flanked by armored vehicles. Other captives calmly left on foot.

Within hours of the drama’s resolution–the army demanded the resignation of the general prosecutor–the interior minister and the security minister.

"A treacherous and premeditated crime was committed. It was a plot aimed at Armenia’s statehood and against the future of the Armenian nation," said the Defense Ministry statement–continually read out on national television.

"In such circumstances the national army cannot stand idly by," it said. However–it reiterated the military’s support to the president in ensuring law and order.

The army statement raised initial fears of some kind of crackdown in a country that has known much political instability in the past. But the streets of the capital were calm.

"I think this is an emotional reaction–given who the prime minister was," Kocharian’s adviser Gassya Apkaryan said of the statement. Sargsyan had been defense minister before becoming premier this year and was popular with the military.

His Holiness Aram I–Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia–is scheduled to arrive in Yerevan Friday to personally convey his condolences to Kocharian. Aram I will also meet with the newly-elected 132nd Catholicos of All Armenia’s–Karekin II–who was chosen Wednesday by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly which convened Tuesday at Etchmiadzin.

The gunmen–led by Nairi Hounanian initially said they were carrying out a coup–accusing the leadership of misleading the nation. They demanded time on national television to explain their actions.

Twin statemen’s from the president and gang leader were read out in the early morning before the hostages were set free.

A statement by the terrorists who seized the National Assembly building was broadcast by National Television early in Thursday morning. The gunmen’said–"We now have an opportunity to address you–although somewhat late. We witnessed our country collapse and turn into a motherland everybody is eager to leave within a few years. Our fathers and grandfathers–who built this country with blood and sweat are in a poor and half-starved existence–thousands of our children have no shoes to wear and no text-books to read. Our economy is ruined–social tension has reached a critical size and we are facing a threat of losing our statehood," reported the Noyan Tapan news agency.

"Dear compatriots–today we stormed the National Assembly building with a view to frighten the deputies and ask them to bend down–we shot in the air–after which there came shots from security officers and bodyguards in our direction from both ends of the hall.

"There began a skirmish after these shots. Only after that we started to fire point-blank–as a result of which innocent people died. Had there not been these fatal shots–we would have fired into the air only and there would be no victims now.

"What happened was dictated by the will of duty to stop our people from being destroyed and reinstate them in their defied rights.

"Dear compatriots–we expect a normal and active support on your part and demand that the authorities of Armenia guarantee our personal security–a fair investigation and fair trial–taking into account all the reasons and so all the responsible and the plunders be beside us in the dock," continued the statement.

Kocharian pledged a fair trial for the gunmen and said they would not be subject to violence. The gang wanted assurances they would not be hurt.

The prosecutor’s office later said it was opening a criminal case against the gunmen on charges of terrorism and undermining state power–Interfax reported.

The presidential press service issued a statement by Robert Kocharian Thursday–saying–"Today I have to address you on a tragic event. The events that have taken place at the National Assembly of Armenia–make us unite to overcome this difficult test," reported the Noyan Tapan news agency.

"I extend my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who died–my colleagues–associates–friends.

"I assure you that the authorities fully control the situation.

At 3 a.m. Thursday–the presidential press service reported Kocharian met with heads of parliamentary factions and groups.

Political parties represented in the parliament issued a statement that read:

"Shocked by the events that occurred on October 27 at the National Assembly of Armenia–we consider that our prime objective is to maintain stability in the country. The supreme legislative body is continuing to operate and jointly with the president and government of Armenia maintain the constitutional and law order and normal functioning of the state.

"The National Assembly shares the grief with families and friends of those who died. It is necessary to maintain calmness and common sense."

The statement was signed by the Unity bloc–Stability deputy group–the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–The Unity and Law bloc–the National Democratic Union–and the Country of Law parties.

Members of parliament outside the National Assembly building continue to work–holding meetings with the president and government officials–added Noyan Tapan.

Interfax said the president’s office had declared the official mourning period from October 29 to 31 when flags on state buildings would fly at half-mast.

The assault was condemned by the United Nations and by world leaders. The UN General Assembly observed a minute of silence and President Bill Clinton called the attack a "real blow" to the region.

Pope John Paul II sent a letter of condolence to Kocharian–expressing his grief for the murdered leaders and expressing sympathy with the families of the victims.

The attack stunned Armenia. Television broadcasts showed several of the country’s top leaders being gunned down. In addition to Sargsyan–Parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other senior officials died. Five members of parliament and the privatization minister were in hospital.

Some members of parliament–including those not involved in the drama–met briefly to appoint a temporary body to oversee day-to-day affairs. They were due to meet the president later.

The country of 3.8 million was left to guess what lay behind the attack and to assess the likely consequences. But politicians dismissed serious political motives.

"There were no political motives behind the attack–they were just schizophrenics who came to parliament and did their barbaric deed," parliamentarian Galust Sahakian–his jacket stained with blood–told reporters.


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