Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says the country is being threatened by “an attempted military coup” after the military demanded he resign.
It comes as thousands of people flooded the streets in protest amid divisions over his handling of last year’s war with Azerbaijan.
The army’s statement plunged the impoverished former Soviet republic of less than 3 million into a new political crisis, just months after ethnic Armenian forces lost territory in the failed conflict.
Hours after the general staff of Armenia’s military made a shock call for his government to step down, Mr Pashinyan rallied some 20,000 supporters in the centre of the capital Yerevan against what he said was an attempt to oust him.
The opposition gathered some 10,000 of its own supporters not far away, then began putting up tents and building barricades outside parliament as it vowed to hold around-the-clock demonstrations.
Protesters were heard chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, resign!”
In a chilling sight, footage of military jets circling Yerevan was posted on social media.
The army’s chief of general staff Onik Gasparyan put out a statement criticising the PM’s decision to sack Tiran Khacharyan, the army’s first deputy chief of the general staff.
Mr Gasparyan demanded Mr Pashinyan’s resignation and said the PM’s cabinet should also step down.
“The prime minister and the government are no longer able to make reasonable decisions,” the army statement said.
“For a long time, the Armenian Armed Forces were patiently tolerating the ‘attacks’ by the incumbent government aimed at defaming the armed forces, but everything has its limits,” the statement said, according to Armenpress.
The statement was signed off by Mr Gasparyan, his deputies, and top military personnel who make up the general staff of the Armenian armed forces.
Meanwhile the PM responded defiantly.
“I am ordering all generals, officers and soldiers: Do your job of protecting the country’s borders and territorial integrity,” he said during the rally.
The army “must obey the people and elected authorities,” Mr Pashinyan said.
He attempted to downplay the military statement, saying it had been an “emotional reaction” to his firing the previous day of Mr Khachatryan.
Mr Khachatryan had ridiculed claims by Mr Pashinyan that Iskander missiles supplied by Russia – Armenia’s main military ally – had failed to hit targets during the war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
COUNTRY IN TURMOIL
But Armenia’s opposition urged him to heed the demand.
“We call on Nikol Pashinyan not to lead the country towards civil war and to avoid bloodshed. Pashinyan has one last chance to avoid turmoil,” Prosperous Armenia, the country’s largest opposition party, said in a statement.
Prosperous Armenia and another opposition party, Bright Armenia, called for the holding of an extraordinary session of parliament, which is controlled by Mr Pashinyan’s allies.
Their supporters had gathered outside parliament in the early evening, blocking traffic, erecting tents and making barricades out of rubbish bins.
“We will bring tents, stoves, everything we need. We are staying here. The politicians can either come or we will bring them to parliament,” said Ishkhan Saghatelyan of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutyun.
President Armen Sarkissian, whose role is largely symbolic, said he was taking urgent steps to try to defuse the crisis, while Armenia’s Apostolic Church called for all sides to hold talks “for the sake of our homeland and people”.
Russia, which is traditionally a close ally and has a military base in Armenia, said it was alarmed by the events, but called it a domestic matter that Armenia should resolve peacefully and within its constitution.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Mr Pashinyan and “called on all parties to show restraint,” the Kremlin’s spokesman said.
The European Union’s spokesman said it was following developments closely and called for the armed forces to “maintain neutrality in political matters” in line with Armenia’s constitution.
Turkish state media Anadolu Agency said Ankara “strongly condemned the ’coup attempt’ in Armenia”.
“We condemn all military coups or coup attempts, no matter where they take place across the world,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in response to a question during a joint news conference with his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto in Budapest.
People of a country have the right to criticize their governments or demand their resignation, Cavusoglu said, adding: “It is unacceptable for a military to call for the resignation of an elected government.”
– with AFP