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Sunday, October 31, 1999 Published at 04:42 GMT

World: Europe

Armenia's grief at state funerals

Open coffins allowed Armenians to pay their last respects

The poeple of Armenia have been grieving at the funerals of the Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and other senior politicians shot dead during an armed attack on parliament.

Seven of the victims, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and Parliamentary Speaker Karen Demirchyan, were interred in four separate ceremonies in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

BBC's James Rodgers in Yerevan: A feeling of horror
An eighth victim, Armenak Armenakian, was buried on Saturday at a private service according to his family's wishes.

Hundreds of wreaths were displayed outside the opera house where the open coffins of those slain had been lying in state. As mourners gathered, many of them weeping uncontrollably, state television played Mozart's requiem mass.

[ image: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin:
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "Millions of Russians empathise"
The Armenian President, Robert Kocharyan, was joined for the ceremony by delegations from around the world.

Our corespondent in Yerevan says their expressions of sympathy are a measure of the horror felt both inside Armenia and beyond at the sudden and brutal nature of the killings.

The eight politicians were gunned down when a gang of armed men stormed the parliament chamber during a government question-and-answer session on Wednesday.

Last respects

Armenian and Russian leaders joined thousands of ordinary Armenians on Saturday to pay their last respects and file past the coffins of the politicians at a service broadcast on national television.

[ image: Thousands of mourners gathered outside Yerevan opera house on Saturday]
Thousands of mourners gathered outside Yerevan opera house on Saturday
Relatives of the dead accompanied the coffins to the opera house, while mourners stood outside the building, which was lined by police and troops.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed his country's condolences to the relatives and friends of the dead.

He told them that it was a "difficult, sad and mournful day for Armenia, but millions of Russians empathise with you", adding that Russia more than other countries "understood what terror is".

"I promise that we, in the Russian Federation, will do everything in our power to ensure that the job we were doing together with our friends can flourish," he said.

The United States has also pledged its support in the wake of the killings.

President Robert Kocharyan is taking on the prime minister's duties until a successor to Mr Sarkisian is appointed.

Fair trial

The five gunmen burst into the parliament chamber and opened fire on deputies.

They took a number hostage, but surrendered on Thursday after being promised a fair trial.

The prosecutor-general has charged them with terrorism and attempting to weaken state power.

They face prison terms of 10-15 years, or the death penalty - although there has been a moratorium on capital punishment since 1994.

Armenian officials described the attack as a terrorist act, but said the gunmen were not part of any group or motivated by any political aim.

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