Armenia issues ultimatum to resolve lengthy hostage siege

Protestors in support of initiators of the occupation of the Patrol-Guard Service Regiment of Erebuni district in Yerevan, Armenia on July 26, 2016.
Protestors in support of initiators of the occupation of the Patrol-Guard Service Regiment of Erebuni district in Yerevan, Armenia on July 26, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

YEREVAN (AFP) - Armenia's security services issued an ultimatum to gunmen holding up a police station Saturday (July 30), in a bid to resolve a weeks-long hostage crisis after dozens were hurt in overnight clashes.

"We are giving members of the armed group until 17:00 (9pm Singapore time) to lay down their arms and surrender," the Armenian national security services said in a statement.

"Otherwise special forces law enforcement have the right to open fire," it said.

"After the events of July 29, any opportunities to resolve the situation with the terrorists peacefully have been exhausted."

Dozens were injured and 26 arrested in the early hours of Saturday after authorities broke up a rally near the police station, where the armed pro-opposition group has been holed up for almost two weeks with several hostages.

More than 70 people were taken to various hospitals around the capital to be treated for injuries including burns and broken limbs.

"Out of 73 injured people, 26 are still in hospital, including six policemen," health ministry spokeswoman Anahit Haytayan wrote on Facebook.

Police used truncheons, stun grenades and smoke bombs to break up the demo in support of the gunmen, who are still holding two medics.

Journalists were among those hurt and a house caught on fire in the neighbourhood, a residential area.

Earlier Friday, police had exchanged fire with the gunmen, wounding two, who were taken to hospital under armed guard.

Armenian police told AFP that 165 people were detained in total during the overnight unrest, of whom 26 were later arrested.

The rest were released.

Authorities said they had launched a criminal probe into 23 of the protesters, including a member of the pro-Western Heritage party Armen Martirosyan.

However, the Armenian Ombudsman accused police of heavy-handed tactics against journalists during the protest, and said plain-clothes officers prevented media from covering the event.

On Saturday the area was generally calm, with several police officers manning the cordon thrown up since the hostage situation erupted and only letting through local residents after an ID check.

The gunmen - supporters of fringe jailed opposition leader Zhirair Sefilyan - stormed the police building on July 17, killing one officer, taking several more hostage and seizing a store of weapons.

They have since freed all the police but on Wednesday seized four medical staff who had entered the compound to treat some of their wounds, two of whom were later released.

The group has demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sarkisian and Sefilyan's release and protesters have regularly gathered in the neighbourhood, voicing similar calls.

Sefilyan and six of his supporters were arrested in June, accused of preparing to seize government buildings and telecoms facilities.

The hostage crisis and violence has shaken the small landlocked ex-Soviet nation, just months after a surge in conflict with Azerbaijan over separatist ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorny-Karabakh left 110 people dead in April.

The US embassy in Yerevan in a statement Friday said it was "deeply troubled by the ongoing hostage situation." Council of Europe chief Thorbjorn Jagland urged both parties to "put an end to this dangerous situation without delay."