Gunmen invaded the Armenian parliament Wednesday and shot to death the prime minister and at least three other officials, plunging the small landlocked former Soviet republic into a political crisis.
The gunmen were still holding more than 50 hostages in the parliament early today. The assailants initially demanded to make a statement on television or radio; later reports said they were seeking a helicopter.
The takeover began about 5:15 p.m. Wednesday as the gunmen burst into the main chamber of the national parliament during a question-and-answer session conducted by members of the Cabinet. Dramatic scenes of gunmen in trench coats, armed with assault weapons and firing into the air, were shown on Armenian television.
Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan, 40, the nation's No. 2 official behind President Robert Kocharyan, was seated in the front row when gunmen on the podium opened fire on him and other top officials, causing terrified deputies to dive under their desks.
"The first shots were fired directly at Vazgen Sarkisyan at a distance of 1 to 2 meters," Anna Israelyan, a journalist who had been at the scene, said later. "It was impossible that he would have survived."
Hundreds of soldiers and police immediately surrounded the parliament building, located near the U.S. Embassy in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Ambulances and emergency vehicles sped to the scene.
Kocharyan was at a meeting in the nearby presidential building when the attack began and raced to the parliament to take charge of negotiations with the gunmen.
Among those confirmed dead were the parliamentary speaker, Karen S. Demirchyan, who was Armenia's Soviet-era leader; the deputy speaker, Yuri Bakhshyan; and the minister for operative issues, Leonard Petrosyan.
Some reports indicated that the four bodies were removed from the building Wednesday evening, while others said the bodies of Sarkisyan and Demirchyan remained in the chamber today as negotiations with the gunmen continued.
There also were conflicting reports about additional deaths. According to some witnesses, three other officials--Ruben Miroyan, a deputy speaker, Genrikh Abramyan, a member of parliament, and Mikhail Kotanyan, a senior economic advisor--also were killed.
The number of terrorists was variously put at between four and six.
In Washington, President Clinton issued a statement condemning the attack. "I condemn the senseless act against individuals actively engaged in building democracy in their country," he said. "My heart and prayers go out to the people of Armenia and the families of the very important officials who have been killed."
The shootings will create a political vacuum in Armenia as Kocharyan weighs a replacement for Sarkisyan, who had been a key political and military figure in the new nation throughout this decade.
Armenia, a mainly Christian country of 3.7 million people, gained independence after the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Situated in the region of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, Armenia has remained relatively free of the political slayings that have plagued neighbors such as the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Reports from Yerevan said that after the shooting began, dozens of deputies managed to crawl out of the assembly chamber and escape. Those that remained were taken hostage. The gunmen told a group of journalists that they were launching a coup and issued an appeal to Armenians to mob the building in support.
"They said a coup had finally happened, and they promised to take revenge on all those who had brought so much evil on the people of Armenia," said Lilit Bleyan, one of the journalists, in comments broadcast on Russian television.
But presidential Press Secretary Vage Gabrelyan said in an interview that there was no coup and that security forces had sealed off the building. "The president and other power bodies are in charge," he said.
"It came like a bolt out of the blue, totally unexpected," Gabrelyan said of the attack. "No one would have expected a tragedy like this to happen. It is just so absurd, tragic and ridiculous that it is beyond any understanding."
Gabrelyan described the gunmen as "a group of armed lunatics" who had claimed no association with any political organization.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Yerevan backed that view, saying Kocharyan remained in control and that it did not appear the gunmen were part of an organized political force.
One of the gunmen was identified by witnesses as Nairi Umanyan, a former journalist and extreme nationalist. Two of the other terrorists reportedly were related to him. Journalists present at the beginning of the attack said Umanyan accused officials of "drinking our blood."
Sarkisyan and Demirchyan were leaders of the Unity political bloc, which won the Armenian elections in June. Sarkisyan, a former defense minister, was named premier June 11.
Political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan, of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow, said Sarkisyan loomed large in Armenian politics.
"He had the full support of the bulk of the country's political, military and economic elite," Iskandaryan said. "His absence in Armenia's political arena is likely to create a political vacuum that will be very difficult to fill."
Iskandaryan said the killings could cause political instability, tarnish Armenia's international reputation and increase the sway of hard-line political figures.
"What happened in Yerevan today was hardly a carefully calculated political act," he said. "Neither was it a coup. More likely than not it was an act of terror that was committed by a handful of embittered people with radical political views. . . ."
In a low-profile visit to the Armenian capital, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met Kocharyan and Sarkisyan earlier Wednesday to discuss the embattled region of Nagorno-Karabakh but left for Ankara, Turkey, about an hour before the attack.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Talbott earlier had conferred with Azerbaijani leaders in their capital, Baku, in an attempt to mediate the dispute between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave surrounded by Azerbaijan but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.
"We have no reason to think this is in any way related to Deputy Secretary Talbott's visit," Rubin said of the attack. He added that Talbott "had no indication of anything amiss before he left."
Rubin said Talbott's party described the meetings in both Yerevan and Baku as "very constructive."
It was unclear whether Wednesday's attack was related to the disputed enclave.
Nagorno-Karabakh tried to break away from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s, leading to a war that left tens of thousands dead before a Russian-mediated 1994 cease-fire that left the enclave's future unresolved.
In recent years, Azerbaijan has been increasing the pressure for territory to be returned to its control.
Sarkisyan and Demirchyan strongly opposed the return of territory. Sarkisyan was a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Alexey V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.
* Born: March 5, 1959.
* Education: Graduated Yerevan State Institute of Physical Education, 1979.
* Career highlights: Teacher, 1979-83; Communist Youth League secretary at cement factory, 1983-86; journalist, 1986-89; defense minister, 1991; minister of state, 1993-95; defense minister, 1995-99; prime minister, June 11, 1999.
* Interests: Poetry and sports.
* Personal: Unmarried.
* Quote: "Let us be brave and confess that we are all guilty, our common irresponsibility and negligence." (July 28 television address on Armenia's economic woes)