Armenian gunmen surrender

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The Independent Online

Gunmen who stormed the Armenian parliament and killed the prime minister and other top government officials surrendered this morning and released all their hostages, officials said.

Gunmen who stormed the Armenian parliament and killed the prime minister and other top government officials surrendered this morning and released all their hostages, officials said.

The gunmen gave up their weapons and were taken by police to the Security Ministry for questioning, according to President Robert Kocharian's office. The gunmen were being escorted by Andranik Martaryan, a leader of the Unity Party, who had been one of the hostages.

The breakthrough came after Kocharian negotiated with the gunmen's leader and promised they would be given a fair trial.

A recorded statement by the gunmen was broadcast on national TV shortly before their surrender as part of the agreement to end the stand-off. They accused the government of pursuing disastrous political and economic policies that had allegedly ruined Armenia.

There was no immediate word on the condition of the hostages, mainly lawmakers and senior officials, who had been held overnight in the parliament building. Officials said there were between 25 and 40 hostages, and that the gunmen had freed four of them overnight.

Hundreds of police and army troops had surrounded the parliament building in central Yerevan throughout the night and authorities had been considering using special forces to end the stand-off.

But the gunmen said after talks with the president that they had received assurances their safety would be guaranteed and that they would receive a fair trial.

The gunmen's leader said earlier that he acted to save Armenia from disintegration, saying the attack was a "patriotic action."

The bodies of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian were sprawled on the chamber's podium, where they were shot when the gunmen burst in Wednesday afternoon, firing automatic weapons.

The leader of the gunmen was identified as Nairi Unanian, an extreme nationalist and former journalist, according to reporters in the chamber at the time. His brother and uncle were among the attackers, the reporters said.

Unanian went up to the premier and said, "Enough of drinking our blood," the reporters said. Sarkisian calmly responded, "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children."

Unanian then opened fire, the reporters said.

In an interview with Armenian TV channel A1 Plus, Unanian said Thursday that the assault was intended to kill only Sarkisian and that the other deaths were "the result of technical mistakes."

"Other than the prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, all the others are innocent victims," he said in the interview, as reported by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Armenia, like many ex-Soviet republics, has been mired in economic chaos for years, stuck between the failed Soviet system and largely unsuccessful efforts to build a market economy.

Unanian reportedly had been a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as Dashnak, a group the government has tried to suppress.

Dashnak said Unanian had been expelled several years ago and the party had nothing to do with the attack.

There was also speculation that the attack could be linked to continuing tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1988 and separatists helped by Armenia drove out Azerbaijani troops. A truce was signed in 1994, but sporadic fighting has continued.

The Armenian government, although composed of nationalists like Sarkisian who made their political careers by championing the enclave, has been seeking a solution to the continuing tensions.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was in Yerevan on Wednesday as part of efforts to end the tensions, leaving just hours before the shooting.

The other victims, besides the prime minister and parliament speaker, were deputy speakers Yuri Bakhshian and Ruben Miroian, Energy Minister Leonard Petrosian, senior economic official Mikhail Kotanian, and lawmakers Genrikh Abramian and Armenak Armenakian.

The full Cabinet was attending a question-and-answer session in the parliament chamber at the time of the shooting. Frightened lawmakers ran from the building.

Armenian television footage of the attack, showed at least two men in long coats firing automatic weapons in the chamber. Some lawmakers dove under their desks.

Sarkisian, a 40-year-old former athletic instructor and Soviet propaganda official, was appointed premier by Kocharian last June.

Sarkisian was an ally of Demirchian, who was Armenia's Soviet-era leader. The two headed the hard-line Unity party.