Killers attacked 'those who drank nation's blood'

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The killing of at least seven top Armenian officials, including the Prime Minister, in the Armenian parliament yesterdaymay be connected with corruption and factionalism within the government, specialists on the region said last night.

The killing of at least seven top Armenian officials, including the Prime Minister, in the Armenian parliament yesterdaymay be connected with corruption and factionalism within the government, specialists on the region said last night.

The motives of the assailants were still a mystery, and whether the Prime Minister, VazganSarkissian, was the specific target of the shooting is unclear. But he was a leader of a younger generation of Armenian politicians, and had key responsibility in the economy, deciding state subsidies and the award of government contracts.

"Sarkissian is a very powerful figure domestically. Strong arm tactics get used, and this episode could have been arranged by interests who had lost out in the division of the spoils - or by radicals protesting the corruption in the way business is done," said Anna Matveeva, a specialist on TransCaucasia at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA) in London. The reported words of one of the gunmen, that they opposed "those who have drunk the blood of the nation", could be interpreted in that sense, she added.

Another, connected, possibility is that the attack stems from a feud within the governing coalition. "Armenian politics is volatile, and political assassinations happen there. Basically, this sort of thing is do-able in Armenia," Ms Mateeva said.

Either way, it appears less plausible that the episode reflects disagreement over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, an overwhelmingly Armenian-populated enclave within the legal frontiers of Azerbaijan - the issue that brought down the previous president, Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Like President Robert Kocharian, who appointed him Prime Minister in June, Mr Sarkissian has long been a hardliner on Nagorno-Karabakh, and helped force the resignation of Mr Ter-Petrosian last year.

Fighting first broke out over the enclave in 1988, as separatists sought to reunite it with Armenia, from which Nagorno-Karabakh was severed by Stalin in the 1920s. After six years of hostilities, a ceasefire in 1994 left control in Armenian hands, but did not resolve the final juridical status of the region.

Today a settlement, on which Strobe Talbott, the US deputy Secretary of State, has also been working during his current visit to the region, looks closer than ever before. The rumoured deal would offer some face-saving device for the ailing 76-year-old Azeri president, Gaidar Aliyev, but in practical purposes the enclave would stay with Armenia.

"Everyone in Armenia is a nationalist over Nagorno-Karabakh," Ms Matveeva said. "It's possible these people were ultra-hardliners trying to prevent what they claim would be a sell-out to Azerbaijan, but it's not very likely."

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