Yerevan: Up to 10,000 anti-government protesters rallied in the capital of ex-Soviet Armenia on Friday and occupied a central square after riot police withdrew to prevent clashes.
Calling for the government's resignation and early elections, they held a short rally and then marched through the city to Freedom Square, which had been cordoned off by riot officers with batons and shields.
But the police pulled back, allowing the demonstrators to continue their protest in the square, which was the scene of mass rallies after disputed Presidential Elections in 2008 that ended in clashes leaving 10 people dead.
The leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, warned the government that more radical protests could follow if it does not to comply with his demands before the next rally later this month.
"We are not speaking with the authorities in the language of ultimatums yet, but the people's patience has limits," Ter-Petrosian said.
Another senior Armenian National Congress official, Levon Zurabian, called on activists to prepare for a campaign of civil disobedience.
"We are entering a new stage in our struggle," Zurabian said.
Opposition supporters are angry about poor social conditions and the continued imprisonment of activists allegedly involved in the violence in 2008.
They claimed that the authorities had disrupted public transport heading to Yerevan from the provinces in an attempt to thwart the demonstration.
After Ter-Petrosian's speech, some of the protesters were in a celebratory mood and danced to Armenian music in the square, where demonstrations had been prohibited until a large rally last month also forced riot police to abandon their cordon.
The Armenian National Congress has predicted a bloodless "velvet revolution", hoping to emulate mass uprisings in the Arab world.
But the governing Republican Party led by President Serzh Sarkisian says that it has no intention of holding polls before a Parliamentary Election due next year and is working to improve social conditions in the impoverished country of three million people.
"Stability and stable development is very important for the country," governing party lawmaker Eduard Sharmazanov said, warning against political "shocks" which could damage Armenia.
The country has gone through political and military turmoil since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with a series of disputed elections and a war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorny Karabakh.
Since the Karabakh war in the 1990s, Armenia has suffered economically because of closed borders with Azerbaijan and another neighbour Turkey, which strongly objects to Yerevan's campaign to have the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire recognised as genocide.
First Published: Saturday, April 09, 2011, 09:06