Day murder came to the Armenian parliament

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The Independent Online

Armenian television has rarely been so lively or so avidly watched around the world as yesterday when two men in long coats burst on to the nation's TV screens, firing at parliamentarians in the chamber with automatic weapons.

Armenian television has rarely been so lively or so avidly watched around the world as yesterday when two men in long coats burst on to the nation's TV screens, firing at parliamentarians in the chamber with automatic weapons.

The MPs cowered behind their desks while astonished viewers were told it was a coup attempt led by an extreme nationalist journalist. The coup leaders "were going to punish the authorities for what they did to the nation", said one reporter who was in the chamber as the gunfire erupted.

The full Armenian cabinet had been attending a question-and-answer session. Frightened MPs ran from the building, which is located in the centre of Yerevan.

Yesterday had begun as aroutine day in Armenia's parliament. The country is in a corner of the Caucasus largely forgotten by the world since it won independence from Moscow in 1991.

The Prime Minister, Vazgen Sarkissian - well known only to Armenians and a handful of experts on the former Soviet Union - was making a speech to a full session while the deputies slumbered. Then five men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles burst in - though only two were featured on the live television broadcast - and sprayed the government benches with bullets. They aimed directly at the Prime Minister, cutting him off in mid flow. The broadcast showed one attacker leaping up on a platform and shooting the Speaker of Parliament, Karen Demirchian, from behind.

The MPs dived for cover, and there were reports that scores were being held hostage.

The President, Robert Kocharian, was inside parliament late last night "at the requirement of the gunmen", a source in Yerevan said. However, said the source, he was not a hostage. The gunmen wanted to negotiate with him and were asking for access to television to address the nation. They were also reported to have demanded a helicopter.

The gunmen had simply strolled into the Soviet-era parliament, where there are no security devices although men throughout the Caucasus routinely carry personal weapons.

The gunmen shouted that they were launching a coup against those who had "drunk the blood of Armenia". Then the television and radio coverage went dead. Confusion reigned.

Initial reports said that the Prime Minister had been killed, as indeed it appeared from the television pictures. Then officials said he had been wounded. Later still there were reports that he had escaped through a back door. Doctors at a hospital, which had been said to be treating him for a gunshot wound to the chest, denied he had been admitted.

The presidential spokesman, Vahe Gabrielian, tried to play down the drama, saying that it was a small "terrorist" incident and definitely not a coup. Only when the head of the church in Armenia confirmed that the political leadership of Armenia had been virtually wiped out did the television dare to announce the prime minister's death to a shocked nation.

Those killed along with Mr Sarkissian were his deputy Yuri Bkhshian, the Energy Minister Leonard Petrosian and the parliamentary speaker.

President Kocharian only recently succeeded Levon Ter-Petrosian, who had taken over Armenia after the Soviet empire collapsed. Ter-Petrosian had shown willingness to open discussions with neighbouring Muslim Azerbaijan on the long-running territorial dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave.

Most of yesterday's victims had taken a tough approach to the Nagorny-Karabakh issue.

Konstantin Petrosian, an Armenian journalist who was covering the session of parliament, said he recognised one of the attackers as Nairiu Hunanyan, a former talk show host and one-time member of the nationalist Dashnak Party. "We have come to avenge those who drank the blood of the nation," Mr Petrosian quoted one of the gunmen as saying. Some analysts took this to mean the gunmen might have been settling scores with Mr Sarkissian, who has launched an anti-crime drive.

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