Armenian PM slams 'coup attempt' as political tensions rise

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan waves to supporters during a rally in his support in the center of Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister has spoken of an attempted military coup after facing the military's General Staff demand for him to step down. The developments come after months of protests sparked by the nation's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. (Tigran Mehrabyan/PAN Photo via AP)

YEREVAN – Armenia's prime minister accused top military officers on Thursday of attempting a coup after they demanded he step down, adding fuel to months of protests calling for his resignation following the country's defeat in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition calls to step down ever since he signed a Nov. 10 peace deal that saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.

The opposition protests gathered pace this week, and the feud with his top military commanders has weakened Pashinyan's position, raising concerns about stability in the strategic South Caucasus region, where shipments of Azerbaijan’s Caspian crude oil pass through on their way to Western markets.

The immediate trigger for the latest tensions was Pashinyan’s decision earlier this week to oust the first deputy chief of the military's General Staff that includes the armed forces' top officers.

In response, the General Staff called for Pashinyan's resignation, but he doubled down and ordered that the chief of the General Staff be dismissed.

After denouncing the military’s statement as a “coup attempt,” Pashinyan led his supporters at a rally in the capital, and he addressed them in a dramatic speech in which he said he had considered — but rejected — calls to resign.

“I became the prime minister not on my own will, but because people decided so,” he shouted to the crowd of more than 20,000 people in Republic Square. “Let people demand my resignation or shoot me in the square.”

He warned that the latest developments have led to an “explosive situation, which is fraught with unpredictable consequences.”