YEREVAN (AFP) — Authorities in ex-Soviet Armenia imposed a state of emergency Saturday after rising tension over a disputed presidential election erupted into violent clashes between protesters and riot police.
The state of emergency will be in effect in the capital Yerevan until March 20 under a decree signed by President Robert Kocharian, his office said.
"In order to end the threat to order and to defend the law and rights of the people, I declare a state of emergency in Yerevan from March 1 to March 20," the decree stated, a presidential spokesman told AFP.
Protesters and riot police clashed Saturday in Yerevan with demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails and stones and police firing tear gas and automatic weapons into the air, an AFP reporter saw.
Shortly after the clashes began, riot police charged into the crowd of at least 6,000 protesters who had gathered in a central square in the Armenian capital in defiance of a crackdown earlier in the day.
After the clash, dozens of automobiles could be seen burning in the streets and shops were looted in the city centre.
"We protested peacefully without hurting anyone, then they attacked us. This is our answer," said one protester among the looters, Arsen Nikaelian.
A police spokesman said eight police officers had received gunshot wounds during the unrest and that several were in a serious condition.
Several protesters could be seen with head injuries and burns, but there was no official information on casualties among the demonstrators.
The protesters had massed in Yerevan for an 11th consecutive day protesting alleged rigging of a February 19 presidential election -- a vote Europe's main election monitoring organisation said "mostly" met international standards.
The opposition's show of defiance came after riot police stormed Yerevan's Freedom Square early Saturday morning to clear a hard core of some 1,500 protesters who had been camping there around the clock since the election.
Police were seen then beating several protestors and the health ministry reported that 31 people, including six police officers, had been injured in the morning operation.
Opposition chief Levon Ter-Petrosian, the defeated presidential candidate and former president of the mountainous country, said he had been placed under house arrest following the crackdown. His campaign team said at least 16 leading opposition figures had been arrested.
Ter-Petrosian's spokesman blamed authorities for the unrest.
"The authorities are entirely responsible for these clashes," spokesman Arman Musinian said. "We said that for the situation to be resolved peacefully it was necessary for Levon Ter-Petrosian to be able to speak with his supporters."
Musinian said it was unlikely there would be more protests on Sunday.
"We always want to stay within the law so there probably won't be demonstrations tomorrow," he said.
Protesters claim the election was rigged to ensure victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, a close ally of the outgoing president.
Official results gave 52.9 percent of the vote to Sarkisian and 21.5 percent to Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian ran on an anti-corruption platform and alleged massive fraud in the election to replace Kocharian.
The mass protests echoed other street movements that have brought down governments in neighbouring ex-Soviet Georgia, as well as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan following disputed elections in the last four years.
In a statement Saturday, the current chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators in Yerevan.
"I urge the authorities to use maximum restraint," he said.
"I am troubled that there are reports of casualties. I urge the authorities to release those detained, and I again call on the government and the opposition to engage in dialogue."
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