Armenian prime minister killed in political attack

by Sascha Matuszak

Gunmen seized Armenia’s parliament in a torrent of automatic-weapons fire Wednesday, killing the prime minister and at least six other people before holing up in the building with dozens of hostages.
With the bodies of some of their victims still on the podium, the attackers, whose motives remained unclear, demanded to see the president.
“They said it was a coup and called on the journalists to inform people about it. They said they were going to punish the authorities for what they did to the nation,” said one reporter who was in the chamber.
Armenia has had problems with political corruption and bribery, but a week before the attack, the prime minister said the government would do all it could to purge corruption from the Armenian political process, said Chris Zakian, a member of the Diocese of the Armenian Church in America.
Armenian television broadcast footage of the attack, showing at least two men in long coats firing automatic weapons in the parliament chamber. Some lawmakers dove under their desks, and others fled into the streets.
One of the attackers approached Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and said, “Enough of drinking our blood,” according to reporters present during the attack. The premier calmly responded, “Everything is being done for you and the future of your children.”
The attacker — identified by reporters as Nairi Unanian, an extreme nationalist and former journalist — opened fire. The other gunmen included Unanian’s brother and uncle, the reporters said.
Some speculated that the attack would plunge Armenia into a major political crisis.
But Zakian said Armenians have been waiting for a free, democratic government for a long time.
The killings should have no effect on the determination of the Armenian people to press on with democracy, he added.
“There isn’t terror in the streets of Armenia right now — they have the parliament building surrounded,” he said.
Hundreds of police and soldiers ringed the parliament building in central Yerevan. Two armored-personnel carriers took up positions, and Armenian President Robert Kocharian personally directed security operations.
The gunmen were demanding talks with Kocharian, but officials did not say if other demands had been made.
The current government is relatively new. The prime minister assumed his position in June, so it was improbable that his performance was the sole motive for the attack.
“There were many hopes related to the government,” said Hovhann Isyan, secretary of the Armenian mission to the United Nations. “There was no time for the nation to be disappointed with them.”
Unanian reportedly had been a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as Dashnak. The country’s oldest political group was founded as a secret nationalist organization in 1890. The government has tried to suppress the group.
“There is no evidence of any links to a political party,” Isyan said. “It seems to be mostly an individual motive.”
Dashnak has taken a more moderate stance recently and denied any link to the attack. The organization expelled Unanian several years ago.
“This person looks like a young, wretched fellow who lost his mind,” Zakian added.
According to a statement issued by the Armenian Republic’s president, the parliament building is controlled by law enforcement. Negotiations with the gunmen are currently underway.
The killing also comes on the day that the leader of the Armenian church, Karekin II, assumes office.
“I don’t envy him his first days in office,” Zakian said. “They should be uplifting and joyous, not dark and sad.”

— This article was compiled from staff and wire reports.

Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected].