YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Police in Armenia's capital on Sunday ordered thousands of demonstrators to disperse, moving to end a protest against higher electricity rates that has blocked a main avenue in Yerevan for nearly a week.
Some protesters obeyed and left for a nearby square, but thousands remained on the street after dark in defiance of both the police and the main protest organizers.
Riot police lined up across the road banged their truncheons against their shields in warning, but made no immediate move. Behind them stood water cannons and armored vehicles.
Protest organizer Vaghinak Shushanian appealed to the demonstrators on Sunday to end their standoff with police in response to a promise by the Armenian president to suspend the 17-percent rate hike pending an audit of the Russian-owned power company.
The unrest is the most serious that the impoverished former Soviet nation has seen in years, posing a challenge to President Serzh Sargsyan and causing great concern in Moscow. Russia maintains a military base in Armenia and Russian companies control most of its major industries.
After a week in which the number of protesters grew steadily to reach about 15,000, Sargsyan announced late Saturday that the government would bear the burden of the higher electricity costs until an international audit of the power company could be done. The protesters claim the Russian-owned utility is riddled with corruption.
Shushanian said Sunday that the president had done as much as he was able to do legally, and while it wasn't a complete victory for the demonstrators, it made sense for them to take a break. About 2,000 protesters left with him for Freedom Square.
But an estimated 6,000 remained on the street, whistling and jeering as they faced off against police. Some chanted "For a free and independent Armenia" and waved Armenian flags. On previous evenings, the protesters, most of whom are young, cheerfully danced and sang in a celebration of national unity. On Sunday, the mood was far more tense.
"Concerned by tense situation downtown," the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said in a Twitter post. "Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behavior befitting democratic values." It then added the #ElectricYerevan hashtag, which has become popular on Twitter.
Shortly after the protesters first blocked the avenue on June 22, riot police used water cannons to disperse them with force, but this only increased their numbers and brought international condemnation. In the days following, regular police stood by peacefully, but on Sunday evening the riot police returned in full gear.
Yerevan's deputy police chief told the protesters that the president's announcement meant they had won.
Throughout the week, the crowds have swelled in the cool of the evening. During the day, only a few hundred protesters have remained on the street, separated from the police by a line of large trash containers.
On Sunday afternoon, they were joined by a newlywed couple, who carried signs calling for the electricity company's debts to be paid by its Russian director and for the utility to be nationalized.
Sargsyan said Saturday that he wouldn't exclude the nationalization of the Armenian power company, a subsidiary of the Russian electricity company Inter RAO UES.
The president's focus, however, was on plans for an audit, which he said Russia had agreed would be conducted by an international company with input from some of the protest organizers. If the audit showed that the rate hikes were justified, they would be passed on to consumers, he said.