Armenian president urges gunmen to release hostages

AP News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2016 5:11 PM
Armenian president urges gunmen to release hostages

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The president of Armenia on Friday called on the gunmen holding hostages in a police station in the capital to lay down arms and release the four police officers they're holding as the tense standoff stretched into its sixth day.

The police station in Yerevan was seized Sunday by gunmen seeking the release of an opposition figure who was arrested in June for illegal weapons possession. One policeman was killed in the assault.

Supporters of the gunmen have rallied outside the police station, and clashed with the police late Wednesday.

President Serzh Sargsyan on Friday met with the country's top law enforcement officials to discuss the crisis and called for the hostages to be released. Sargsyan said that the government's actions "will be in line with Armenia's laws," but did not say whether he would ask police to storm the building.

About 3,000 supporters of the gunmen were gathered near the police station on Friday night. Nikol Panishian, a leading opposition politician, urged the crowd to be peaceful but persistent in its calls for Sargsyan to resign and for new elections.

He also said demonstrators would be holding nightly meetings near the police station.

The Armenian national security agency on Friday that two men had been detained for allegedly trying to bring grenades and firebombs into the crowd of demonstrators.

The opposition figure whom the gunmen are demanding be released is Jirair Sefilian, a noted fighter in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Tensions have been strong in Armenia over suspicions that Sargsyan is ready to make concessions to ease tensions over that disputed region, which this spring boiled over into four days of heavy fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that has been under the control of Armenian forces since the end of a separatist war in 1994. The forces, which Armenia claims consists only of regional fighters and do not include the regular military, also hold substantial territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh proper.

Many Armenians believe Sargsyan is considering a proposal reportedly being promoted by Russia to withdraw from the surrounding territory in exchange for an agreement to delay a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh's final status.