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Wednesday, October 27, 1999 Published at 13:51 GMT

World: Europe

Hostage stand-off in Armenian parliament

Cameras captured the moment when the gunmen stormed the podium

Gunmen in Armenia are holding about 50 hostages in parliament where earlier they shot dead the prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, and several other leading politicians.

BBC News' Orla Guerin: Armenia is in crisis tonight
President Robert Kocharian is holding negotitions with gunmen, who have demanded live access to national television and an escape helicopter.

The hostages include government ministers but the authorities have dismissed suggestions of a coup.

One of the gunmen told a television reporter that they were seeking revenge against a corrupt political elite which was ruining Armenia.

In a broadcast to the nation, the president said the authorities were in control of the situation.

Also killed in the shooting were parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, deputy speaker Yuri Bakhshian, Energy Minister Leonard Petrosian, senior economic official Mikhail Kotanian and four other deputies.

At least two hostages were released after about 10 hours of being held captive. But Agriculture Minister Gagig Shakhbazian and MP Garant Voskanian reportedly made no comment when they were released.

Dramatic pictures

[ image: Prime Minister Sarkisian; shot at close range]
Prime Minister Sarkisian; shot at close range
The attack happened as the government attended a regular Wednesday session in parliament to answer questions from deputies.

Dramatic television pictures showed two men storming into the chamber firing at MPs with automatic weapons. Deputies cowered under their desks.

In an interview filmed inside the building, the leader of the group calmly told a television reporter that he had killed the prime minister and several other leading politicians. He said the whole country supported him.

Both the American President, Bill Clinton, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin have condemned the attack.


[ image:  ]
One reporter who was allowed to leave the parliament building said: "They said it was a coup and called on the journalists to inform people about it.

"They said they were going to punish the authorities for what they did to the nation."

The hostage-takers forced journalists out of the building saying "it is time to get rid of the bloodsuckers who are drinking our blood", eyewitnesses said.

[ image: Ambulances took the injured MPs to hospital]
Ambulances took the injured MPs to hospital
One gunman was identified as former journalist, Nairi Unanian.

Mr Unanian is being described as a one-time member of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutyun.

Armenia became an independent republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since endured years of political instability.

Political unrest

BBC Moscow correspondent James Rogers: " A country riven by political infighting"
BBC Moscow correspondent Andrew Harding says Armenia is a country torn apart by internal strife which has led to outbursts of politically-motivated violence.

Mr Sarkisian, 40-year-old former athletic instructor and Soviet propaganda official, only came into office in June.

Mr Sarkisian and Mr Demirchian lead the hard-line Unity Party.

Mr Sarkisan was among a group of politicians who forced the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrosian in February 1998.

It campaigned against the president's "defeatist" policies on the issue of independence for the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh by agreeing even to discuss returning territory to Azerbaijan.

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