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Karabakh Shooting Sparks Witch-hunt

The attempted murder of president Arkady Ghukasian is expected to seriously disrupt the Nagorny Karabakh peace talks
By IWPR

Police in Nagorny Karabakh have arrested up to 30 people including the former minister of defence in connection with last week's assassination attempt on the enclave's de facto president.


Arkady Ghukasian was seriously wounded when two gunmen wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles fired at his Mercedes just before 1am on March 22. Bullets punched through the doors and windows, hitting driver Sergei Sarkisian who lost control of the car and crashed into a tree.


Ghukasian, who was being driven home from his Stepanakert office, was hit in the legs. He was taken to the Professor Mikaelyan Hospital in Yerevan, together with bodyguard Samvel Gabrielian who was also wounded in the hail of gunfire. Both are expected to make a full recovery. Sarkisian is still in a coma.


Nagorny Karabakh's attorney general, Mavrik Ghukasian, who has taken personal charge of the investigation, swiftly announced that Lieutenant-General Samvel Babayan, former minister of defence and commander-in-chief of the Karabakh army, had been arrested in connection with the shooting.


Babayan is one of an estimated 30 people to have been taken into police custody since the attack. The Armenian news agency, Armenpress, claims the total may be as high as 40. Sources close to the investigation say the detainees also include Babayan's brother, Karen, who is mayor of Stepanakert, civil servant Gurgen Nersesian, local businessman Eduard Verdian and a Lebanese national, Vardan Tashchian. None of the suspects have yet been charged.


Speculation over Babayan's arrest has been intense in Yerevan. The 35-year-old general, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Ghukasian's policies, was sacked as minister of defence in June 1999. Several of his allies were subsequently arrested on corruption charges. Until recently, Babayan controlled the import of cigarettes and oil into the disputed enclave.


However, the general's supporters have been quick to voice their outrage at his arrest. Hrant Khachatrian, head of the Right and Accord parliamentary bloc, said, "I have known Samvel Babayan for a long time and I am certain that he is devoted to Karabakh and Armenia. I don't believe he could do that." Right and Accord is thought to be financed by Lt.-Gen. Babayan.


Meanwhile, the government of Nagorny Karabakh has issued a statement condemning this "unprecedented act of terrorism" which comes only five months after gunmen shot dead eight leading politicians in the Armenian parliament. The enclave's first president, Arthur Mkrtchian, was assassinated in 1992.


The statement said, "The government pledges that all the organisers and perpetrators of the crime will be punished to the full extent of the law. The situation in the country is completely under control, and law-enforcement bodies are doing everything possible to solve this monstrous crime."


Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, who has visited Ghukasian in hospital, said, "I strongly condemn this terrorist action and express my support to the president of Nagorny Karabakh, his government and their policies." Kocharian has offered to help Karabakhi investigators to track down the would-be killers.


Paruir Hayrikian, head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, commented, "Terrorism is becoming an integral part of our daily lives."


Nagorny Karabakh has been at the centre of a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the late 1980s. Six years of fierce fighting ended with a string of Armenian victories and a 1994 ceasefire. The enclave now runs itself as a de facto independent state with political, economic and military ties to Armenia. It is still recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan.


Azerbajiani president Heydar Aliev told TV viewers last week that the attack on Ghukasian was "an internal affair" for Nagorny Karabakh. "We are not interfering in these issues and must not interfere," he said. "I am convinced that this incident has nothing to do with Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and our ongoing peace talks."


In a press conference in Tbilisi on March 23, Aliev added, "The assassination attempt on the life of the president of the unrecognised Karabakh republic will not change Azerbaijan's stance over the resolution of the conflict."


Alexander Iskandarian, a Moscow-based political analyst and the director of the Institute of Caucasian Studies, said that, together with the October 1999 killings in Yerevan, the terrorist attack pointed towards a serious imbalance within Armenian and Karabakhi political cabals.


He explained, "Any shift from a rigid power structure to a democratic government is likely to have disturbing consequences. The ruling parties lack the traditions of political and economic struggle within the framework of the law."


The attempt on Arkady Ghukasian is likely to seriously disrupt the Karabakh peace talks.


Local leaders will inevitably have to devote considerable efforts to quelling any political mutinies which may arise from the incident. This will in turn weaken their forces at the negotiating table and lead to concessions. Concessions of any description will certainly be unpopular.


Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project editor in Yerevan while Vahram Aghajanian is a journalist based in Stepanakert