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Armenia Seeking Terrorism Charges Against Assassins

By Carol J. Williams
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

Vowing retribution for the slaying of eight top political leaders, Armenian officials Thursday announced they were seeking terrorism charges that could carry the death penalty against five gunmen who surrendered after attacking the parliament and holding hostages overnight.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian proclaimed three days of national mourning that will begin Friday and end with the burial of victims from Wednesday’s slaughter in the capital, Yerevan.

Stunned and angry military leaders demanded the country’s police and security chiefs be fired for negligence after the five men toting assault rifles gained entry into the parliament building. Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian was reported by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency to have tendered his resignation after the army threatened to take action unless justice was done.

“A treacherous and premeditated crime was committed. It was a plot aimed at Armenia’s statehood and against the future of the Armenian nation,” a Defense Ministry statement read. “In such circumstances, the national army cannot stand idly by.”

Kocharian attempted to calm fears of military intervention in the power vacuum, describing the Defense Ministry’s ominous warning as “an emotional outburst” by officials respectful of the constitution but upset by the horrifying acts of violence that were aired on national television.

Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, a former defense minister, and Karen S. Demirchian, parliamentary speaker and Armenia’s Soviet-era leader, were among the dead.

After at least 40 hostages from the all-night standoff between the gunmen and government forces were freed early Thursday and the attackers surrendered, Kocharian met with surviving political leaders and was assured of support by opponents as well as allies.

But the motives for the assassinations remained as mysterious as the attack was shocking. Political analysts and Armenian diplomats dismissed reports that the assailants were carrying out a coup, noting that the gunmen were obviously unprepared to seize power after the bloodshed. The men demanded television air time to address the nation, but put no political conditions on their surrender.

The killings also appeared unrelated to the protracted and passionate dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within neighboring Azerbaijan that has proclaimed independence.

Armenia’s ambassador to Russia, Suren Saakian, told Echo of Moscow radio that there was no chance of “the so-called Karabakh footprint” because the leaders killed had been among the most vocal in defending Armenian interests in the region.

“It looks very much like a spontaneous act of blind fury,” political analyst David Petrosian of the Noyan Tapan information agency said in an interview from the Armenian capital.

However, Petrosian added, frustration with the country’s enduring poverty fails to explain how five heavily armed men could plot and execute such an attack. He speculated that the assailants may have been contract killers hired by corrupt businesspeople fearful of becoming targets of a crackdown recently threatened by Sarkisian.