A fire at an Armenian military unit has killed at least 15 servicemen and left at least three in serious condition, according to the Defense Ministry. The men had reportedly been burning gasoline to keep warm.
“Fifteen bodies were taken out of the building, three with burns of varying degrees were delivered to the medical center in Vardenis,” the Rescue Service said in a statement.
It is the deadliest non-combat incident in the history of independent Armenia’s armed forces, Artur Sakunts, an activist working on human rights in the military and chairman of The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly of Vanadzor, told Eurasianet.
Defense Minister Suren Papikyan told a government meeting held a few hours after the fire that several senior military officers had been sacked for violating fire safety rules, including the commander of the second army corps, Vahram Grigoryan, who was in charge of this unit.
“These officers were in one way or another responsible for the execution of the order of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces on the observance of fire safety measures. In this regard, their further stay in these positions is considered inappropriate,” Papikyan added.
Armenian Public TV said in the morning that a total of nine senior officers had been sacked.
Argishti Kyaramyan, chairman of the Investigative Committee of Armenia, told the government meeting that a criminal case had been initiated under Article 352 Paragraph 4 of the Criminal Code of Armenia, concerning “violation of the rules for handling substances that pose a danger to others, leading to the death of two or more people”.
The investigation is ongoing, he added.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressed confidence that the fire was an accident: “According to the preliminary version of the investigation, a serviceman tried to pour gasoline from a 5-liter canister into a stove, as a result of which the canister itself caught fire; the serviceman reflexively threw the canister to the side, starting the wider fire.”
He added that the Armenian General Staff issued an order in December 2020 restricting the use of gasoline, including an instruction that it must be kept away from heating sources.
The incident has shaken the Armenian public, which is still reeling from the loss of roughly 4,000 soldiers in the Second Karabakh War just over two years ago.
Human rights activists and journalists covering army reform began to voice a number of questions to the government.
“They say that you are carrying out reforms in the army. What kind of reforms, how can you carry out reforms if you cannot provide simple things? This is the second time that soldiers have caught fire in the barracks. Is there not a single officer in these barracks who could monitor the conditions in which soldiers and contractors sleep? And you closed all the doors to journalists, and did not allow them to visit military units and positions for ridiculous reasons,” Edik Baghdasaryan, chairman of the Investigative Journalists NGO and editor-in-chief of the Hetq.am website, wrote on Facebook.
Later on, Artur Hovhannisyan, secretary of the ruling Civil Contract faction in parliament, said it was too early to say whether the incident could lead to dismissals higher up the chain of command, such as Defense Minister Papikyan.
“Yes, the defense minister bears political responsibility, but this does not mean that we should immediately try to find scapegoats and blame everything on him,” he said in response to a question from journalists.
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.