Yerevan (AFP) – Armenia’s political turmoil deepened on Sunday with the detention of anti-government protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, shortly after Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian stormed out of talks with him on the tenth day of mass rallies against his rule.
Pashinyan and two other opposition politicians “were detained as they were committing socially dangerous acts”, the prosecutor general’s office said in a statement.
Armenian police earlier denied opposition MP Sasun Mikaelyan’s report that Pashinyan had been arrested.
Pashinyan whereabouts have so far been unknown.
As a lawmaker, he is protected by parliamentary immunity and cannot be arrested without the approval of fellow MPs.
It came hours after Sarkisian stormed out of talks with Pashinyan on Sunday morning, accusing him of “blackmail”.
The tense televised meeting in the capital Yerevan between the premier and Pashinyan lasted only a couple of minutes before the premier cut it short.
“I came here to discuss your resignation,” Pashinyan, the leader of the opposition Civil Contract party, had told the prime minister in front of the cameras.
“This is not a dialogue, this is blackmail, I only can advise you to return to a legal framework… Otherwise you will bear the responsibility” for the consequences, replied Sarkisian, a former military officer.
“You don’t understand the situation in Armenia. The power is now in people’s hands,” Pashinyan hit back.
Sarkisian said the Civil Contract party “can’t speak on behalf of the people”, having scored only 8 percent in a recent parliamentary election, during the brief talks.
– Hundreds detained –
Pashinyan then vowed to “step up pressure” on Sarkisian to force him to resign and called on police officers to “lay down arms and join in the protests”.
Bu instead security forces intervened using stun grenades and began dispersing the crowd in Yerevan’s suburban Erebuni district.
After Pashinyan’s detention, thousands of protesters gathered at Republic Square outside the government’s headquarters, which were cordoned off by riot police.
Hundreds of people were detained, police said in a statement, and seven protesters have sought medical help, according to Armenia’s health ministry.
Armenia’s interior ministry said it took the decision to “disperse demonstrators, including those assembled in Yerevan’s Republic Square.”
“In order to perform these duties, police are entitled to carry out arrests and use force. We urge protesters to comply with these and other lawful demands of policemen,” the statement said.
The country’s security service said in a statement it would take “the entire range of action envisaged by the law” to prevent crimes against national security and acts of terrorism and extremism.
The EU delegation to Armenia issued a statement expressing “concern” over the rapidly unfolding crisis.
“The European Union reiterates that it is crucial that all parties show restraint and responsibility and urgently seek a negotiated solution,” the statement said.
Opposition supporters have criticised the 63-year-old leader over poverty, corruption and the influence of powerful oligarchs.
Pashinyan had earlier announced the “start of a peaceful velvet revolution” in the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million people.
He called for a nationwide campaign of “civil disobedience,” urging civil servants “to stop obeying Sarkisian”.
Under a new parliamentary system of government, lawmakers elected Sarkisian as prime minister last week.
Constitutional amendments approved in 2015 have transferred power from the presidency to the premiership.
After Sarkisian was first elected in 2008, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in post-election clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.