Armenian protestors defy police crackdown

Agence France Presse
March 1 2008

YEREVAN (AFP) - Thousands of Armenians defied a crackdown Saturday
and massed in the capital Yerevan hours after police dispersed a
rally and put opposition chief Levon Ter-Petrosian under house arrest.

About 8,000 opposition supporters protesting alleged rigging of
the February 19 presidential election in the former Soviet republic
gathered near the mayor's office and several embassies.

"Serzh out! Serzh out!" the crowd chanted, referring to the official
winner of the election, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.

Demonstrators clambered over a barricade of buses parked across an
avenue by the security forces and one police car was set ablaze.

Both sides appeared keen to avoid confrontation, however. Riot police
pulled back and opposition leaders urged calm.

"Do not provoke scuffles," Stepan Demirchian, head of the Popular
Party, instructed.

The opposition's show of defiance came shortly after riot police
stormed Freedom Square, by Yerevan's opera house, to clear a hard
core of some 1,500 protesters, who had been camping there around the
clock since the election.

Police could be seen beating several protestors and the health
ministry reported that 31 people, including six police officers,
had been injured in the operation.

Among those arrested was former prime minister Hrant Bagratian,
said Arman Musinian, a spokesman for Ter-Petrosian's party.

Ter-Petrosian himself, the opposition leader, defeated presidential
candidate and former president of the mountainous country, said he
had been placed under house arrest following the crackdown.

"Police took me home. Now I am confined to my residence," he told
journalists at his Yerevan apartment.

Ter-Petrosian ran on an anti-corruption platform and alleged massive
fraud in the election to replace outgoing President Robert Kocharian.

The mass protests echoed other street movements that have brought
down governments in neighbouring ex-Soviet Georgia, as well as Ukraine
and Kyrgyzstan following disputed elections in the last four years.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) have already said that the election "mostly" met international
standards.

But in a statement posted on their website Saturday, the current OSCE
chairman Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, condemned the use
of force against peaceful demonstrators in Yerevan.

"I urge the authorities to use maximum restraint," he said.

"I am troubled that there are reports of casualties. I urge the
authorities to release those detained, and I again call on the
government and the opposition to engage in dialogue," the minister
said.

The opposition accuses Sarkisian, who was backed by Kocharian, of
having used state resources to promote his candidacy, while activists
campaigning for Ter-Petrosian across the country were beaten up.

Though both the round-the-clock tent camp and massive daytime rallies
remained peaceful, the authorities had been warning that their patience
was wearing thin.

Kocharian has described the protests as an attempt at an illegal
power grab and promised the government's response would be "decisive
and firm."

Sarkisian tried to reach out to opponents and on Friday signed a
coalition deal with the third-placed candidate, Artur Baghdasarian.

Sarkisian also said that a deal could soon be made with another
opposition leader, Vahan Hovannisian, who heads the nationalist
party Dashnaktsutiun.

Official results gave 52.9 percent of the vote to Sarkisian and 21.5
percent to Ter-Petrosian.