Three Killed During Gumri Mayor Assassination Attempt

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Law-enforcement authorities were hunting on Tuesday for gunmen that wounded the controversial mayor of Armenia’s second largest city of Gumri and killed three of his bodyguards in a drive-by shooting which they believe was an attempt on his life. Two cars carrying Mayor Vartan Ghukasian, his top aides and bodyguards came under a hail of automatic gunfire shortly after they left Yerevan for Gumri late on Monday. The gunshots were reportedly fired from another vehicle that overtook the motorcade on a highway linking the two cities. Three of the men died on the spot, while another one, Ghukasians driver, was taken to a hospital in Yerevan in a critical condition. The mayor and his deputy Gagik Manukian were also hospitalized, but officials said their injuries were not life-threatening. Ghukasian underwent an overnight surgery and was said to be recovering from a bullet wound in his abdomen. The Armenian police, prosecutors and the National Security Service were quick to announce a joint criminal investigation into the latest in a series of high-profile shootings registered in Armenia over the past year. The Office of the Prosecutor-General said all necessary measures are being taken to identify and track down the assailants. No arrests were reported as of Tuesday afternoon. The fact that Ghukasian was shot on his way home from a high-level meeting of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, of which he is a senior member, added a political dimension to the deadly incident. The late-night meeting nominated the partys top leader, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, for the post of prime minister which has been vacant since the March 25 sudden death of Armenia’s previous Republican premier, Andranik Markarian. In a written statement, the Republican Partys ruling board condemned the assassination attempt and demanded that the law-enforcement bodies swiftly identify and strictly punish the criminals. The statement suggested political motives behind the shootings, describing them as an attempt to undermine the stability of public life in Armenia. The party spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, echoed suspicion. I dont exclude that it was directed against the Republican Party, he said. But another, more influential Republican, Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, disagreed. I see no connection between the [HHK] meeting and the incident, Abrahamian told reporters. Lets not jump into conclusions. Let the law-enforcement bodies do their job, he said. President Robert Kocharian, meanwhile, did not publicly react to the shootings. Kocharian refused to answer any questions from journalists as he inaugurated a newly renovated museum in Yerevan on Tuesday. Ghukasian, who has run the Gumri municipality since 1999, was widely regarded as a protg of Kocharian before joining the Sarkisian-led Republican Party in September last year. His relationship with the ruling party had been tense in the past. The party strongly opposed and condemned as undemocratic Ghukasians most recent reelection in October 2005. The Gumri mayor is no stranger to controversy, having been accused by critics of leading a business clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition. He has also earned notoriety for his flamboyant behavior that has occasionally turned violent. In August 2005, for example, Ghukasian reportedly shot from a pistol at a group of Russian soldiers stationed in Gumri after a drunken argument in a local restaurant belonging to his brother. Ghukasian has also been dogged by corruption allegations that nearly cost him his job three years ago. Local prosecutors considered launching criminal proceedings against him at the time, accusing him of illegally renting out public office space to a close relative.

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