Armenian opposition cries foul as president is re-installed

(Reuters) – Thousands of Armenians protested in Yerevan on Tuesday against the inauguration of President Serzh Sarksyan for a second term, alleging that his election had been fixed.

Across town, Sarksyan said in his inauguration speech that developing the economy, ensuring the rule of law and deepening democracy were his top priorities, along with the peaceful resolution of a long-standing territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

European monitors had said the February 18 election was generally well conducted, but bemoaned a lack of competition after leading candidates pulled out fearing the outcome would be rigged. Sarksyan’s tally of 58.6 percent was in line with opinion polls.

Across town, Sarksyan said in his inauguration speech that developing the economy, ensuring the rule of law and deepening democracy were his top priorities, along with the peaceful resolution of a long-standing territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

European monitors had said the February 18 election was generally well conducted, but bemoaned a lack of competition after leading candidates pulled out fearing the outcome would be rigged. Sarksyan’s tally of 58.6 percent was in line with opinion polls.

Tuesday’s peaceful crowd of some 12,000 was the biggest of the intermittent protests since the election.

Demonstrators led by Raffi Hovannisian, who came second to Sarksyan according to the official count but alleges that he won the vote, rallied in Yerevan’s central Freedom Square as the inauguration was held a few kilometres away.

“We say ‘No’ to false oaths, ‘no’ to false presidents,” Hovannisian, a U.S.-born former foreign minister, told supporters.

With security tight, demonstrators marched through the city after the rally but were stopped by police when they tried to approach the presidential residence and turned back toward Freedom Square.

There has been no repeat of the violence that erupted after round-the-clock protests following Sarksyan’s first election in 2008. Eight activists and two police were killed.

Foreign governments are watching for signs of instability in mostly Christian Armenia, a nation of 3.2 million that hosts a Russian military base and is at odds with its oil-rich, mainly Muslim neighbour Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The mountain territory is in Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians since a war that ended in 1994 with a shaky truce.

There is still sporadic shooting and Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that an Azeri officer had been shot dead on Monday evening by a sniper near the “line of contact”.

A military spokesman in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh government called the Azeri statement “disinformation” and denied violating the truce.

Sarksyan said a peaceful settlement to the issue “will remain our priority for as long as necessary to arrive at a final solution”, while also promising to “enhance the level of our security”.

Years of mediation led by France, Russia and the United States have failed to resolve the dispute, and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has not ruled out eventually resorting to force.

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Kevin Liffey)

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