Amidst a virtual media blackout, witnesses tell their own stories of street fighting in Yerevan.
By IWPR staff in Yerevan (CRS No. 434, 03-Mar-08)Armenia is under a virtual news blackout because of the state of emergency imposed in Yerevan on March 1, which placed tight restrictions on local media.
As people struggle to form a clear picture of the violence that has shaken the Armenian capital, rumours are circulating rapidly.
Amid the rumour and half-truths, several direct witnesses have given accounts of what they saw to IWPR.
Yerevan residents have resorted to telephoning one another or coming out onto the streets to swap information. Taxi drivers, in particular, have become a good source of “alternative news”.
Internet providers have all but shut down access to two independent sources of information – the websites of Radio Liberty and A1+ television.
Much of the video footage shot during the protests was confiscated by police, but some is being released on the internet, as Armenians exchange information on sites such as Youtube and Facebook.
Rumours that the number of dead was not eight – as officials say - but 40 or even 100 have fuelled anger among opposition supporters already infuriated by official television reports that placed all the blame on the protestors.
Eyewitnesses who observed clashes at various points in the day on March have told IWPR of running battles and police violence.
When the trouble began early on March 1, as the opposition’s tent city on Freedom Square was broken up and protestors were rounded up., one young woman named Suzie managed to capture on film footage in which ten policemen attacked and kicked a man.
Later in the day, another clash took place close to the French embassy and the office of Yerevan’s mayor. A foreigner living in Yerevan, who asked not to be named, told IWPR he observed the ensuing confrontation, and alleged that men armed with rifles deliberately fired on civilians.
“I was on a balcony overlooking the epicentre of the battle last night. I was within 10 metres of the entire fight,” he said.
“There were special-forces snipers with black ski-masks mixed in with the young, scared policemen, who were not masked. While the police shot tracers into the air, these riflemen directly aimed at and shot protesters. I saw two men fall on the ground below me, one with a massive haemorrhage to his head. He was unconscious and carried off by other protesters.”
At the start of the police action against the crowd assembled near the embassy building, he said, “I saw a police captain and his lieutenants drinking in celebration as they sent the first attack of terrified, ill-trained riot police to the front.”
As the police moved in, they set fire to a barricade that protesters had erected near the embassy. “Protesters lobbed fire back onto the streets and counter-charged. The police then panicked, and some were wounded in the melee, mostly from their own [colleagues] also trying to get away from the fight. I saw several police limp back, but none were bloody,” said the eyewitness, adding, “This is when I saw masked soldiers take aim and fire directly at the protesters.”
The eyewitness said the demonstrators had only makeshift weapons - rocks and metal bars. “A few had Molotov cocktails, but most simply took tear gas canisters and whatever police used to send fire into the protesters [and threw them] back,” he said.
In the second police charge, he said, the police brought in water-cannon trucks, but used them “ineptly”, running out of water before they reached the protesters.
The security forces then retreated again. “This is when the protesters began to give chase, chasing riot police and the water-cannon trucks all the way to Proshian and the Hrazdan gorge,” said the eyewitness.
He gave his own account of the looting incidents that followed, which have been widely reported in the media. He said protestors seemed to target only the security forces and those businesses whose owners were seen as close to the current government.
“Some elements broke into supermarkets owned by oligarchs and deputies of parliament who are widely seen to be among the most corrupt officials in the country,” he said. “This is the remarkable thing that occurred – they targeted only two oligarch supermarkets, one candy store, one high-scale shoe shop and a few windows. That's it. They did not touch a single other shop on the street.”
The same applied to vehicles, he continued, claiming, “The only cars torched were military or police vehicles. Fighting went back and forth in front of me and there were five cars unfortunately parked on the street by people living in the building, but there was not a scratch on them.”