Usually in a hostage crisis, the public sympathizes with the hostages upon their release. But in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, where a group of anti-government gunmen took over a police station last Sunday, more sympathy seems to be with the hostage-takers themselves.
“It is unclear why the guys turned to such a measure,” complained 35-year-old radio technician Armen Nersesian about the group’s July 23 agreement to release four policemen in exchange for a press briefing. “It is the most incorrect step they could take. Now [government forces] can invade at any moment and carry out an armed attack.”
Members of a fringe opposition movement called Founding Parliament, the fighters are mostly veterans of the 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of them hold highly celebrated war records.
Aside from adamantly opposing any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan, they have demanded Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation and the release of their political leader, Jirair Sefilian, jailed for allegedly plotting the government’s overthrow. They also have asked for the release of other alleged political prisoners.
Much of the Yerevan sympathy for them stems from antipathy toward the government, reputed among many for rampant corruption and abuse of civil rights. Guns appear to be the best way of getting across disapproval of that record, the thinking goes.
Aware of the group’s attractions for many – clashes on July 20 between police and protesters injured scores – President Sargsyan, also a Karabakh war veteran, emphasized on July 22 in his first statement since the standoff began that “solving issues with violence” comes with “very serious consequences for our country and statehood.” The government, he claimed, will not take those steps.
One policeman was killed when the gunmen stormed the police station; a few injuries also occurred.
But some Yerevan residents do not believe the president’s words.
Rather than the government acting prudently by avoiding violence, they believe that the gunmen acted “imprudently” in agreeing to release their hostages.
“What else can hold the government back now from attacking, or make it carry out the [gunmen’s] demands when there are no more hostages?” asked one of those gathered near the police station, an area that now has attracted hundreds to demonstrate for the gunmen’s “rights.” “How can we believe the government, or on what grounds can we miss all the opportunities [to bring about change]?”
In exchange for the hostages, government forces allowed about three dozen reporters inside the Erebuni police station on July 23. The rifle-toting gunmen, some wearing headbands with the red, orange and blue colors of the Armenian flag, posed for photos, but did not elaborate in detail about their long-term plans.
“They wanted to show that they are not a group of terrorists,” commented political analyst Aghasi Yenokian, head of the Armenian Center of Political and International Relations, a nonprofit think-tank. With negotiations ongoing with the government and an allegedly “serious system of defense” inside the Erebuni police station, “now they do not need the hostages,” he speculated.
The government has stopped calling the gunmen “terrorists;” further proof, according to some onlookers, that they recognize their public support.
The police have published a list of 24 names of men that allegedly make up the Daredevils of Sassoun, also claiming that drug addicts, alcoholics and those subject to nervous disorders are among them.
No mention is made of those men – including the gunmen’s de facto leader, Pavel Manukian – who previously were considered heroes of the war with Azerbaijan over ethnic-Armenian-dominated Karabakh.
Whatever these veterans learned of tactics and strategy during that war will now be put seriously to the test. The group, calling themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun after an epic poem about patriotic fighters against Arab invaders, has claimed that others in Armenia’s regions will follow their example. But, as yet, apart from one statement of support from seven people in the southeastern region of Kapan and unconfirmed reports of other regional supporters having joined the crowd in Yerevan, no sign exists that that is the case.
Since the hostages’ release, shooting reportedly has been heard from the station. The A1+ website reported that the group had shot a police drone, while a police car was burned in the station, now dubbed “New Armenia” by the militants.
The gunmen also have claimed that helicopters flew over the police station’s territory. Late on July 25, a crowd of hundreds of sympathizers had again gathered near the building.
Misinformation runs rife, however, with objective news reporting rare. Last night, many on social networks claimed police were starting to attack the Erebuni station, and were trying to break down one of the walls to enter. Nevertheless, an attack never occurred.
Other Armenians are less enthusiastic about the gunmen. Some lament what their popularity among members of the younger generation says about the role of violence in Armenian society.
Others put their distaste aside when considering violent measures taken by the government itself in recent years; in particular, the fatalities and imprisonments that followed protests over the 2008 presidential elections.
“I do not accept violence, or solving issues this way,” commented 40-year-old musician Nune Margarian. “In another situation, I’d call what [the gunmen] did madness, but people have stood up, and I also understand that during the past 25 years in our country we have run out of many options for fighting, and I somehow understand these guys.”
Human rights activist Artur Sakunts called the gunmen’s complaints “legitimate” since they supposedly had “exhausted all legal and political methods,” but cautions that the government should continue to refrain from violence to resolve the dispute. [Sakunts is the head of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a human rights NGO receiving support from the Open Society Foundations-Armenia that operates as part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the Soros network.]
The National Security Service, an intelligence-policing-and-investigative body, urged the gunmen on July 25 “to behave reasonably” and “put down their arms and give up. You still have time for that.”
But the gunmen, apparently reliving their Karabakh war days, still maintain that they will not surrender.
“We will go till the end, we will give up our life, but we will not give up,” they declared in their July 23 briefing.