( Reuter )- Armenia's opposition called on its supporters to hold a new protest on Saturday, hours after baton-wielding police broke up its 10-day sit-in, drawing a rebuke from Europe's main democracy and security watchdog.
Several thousand opposition supporters had protested daily in Yerevan's Freedom Square since Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan was elected to replace his ally Robert Kocharyan as president in a February 19 vote, seen as rigged by the opposition.
Riot police moved into the square early on Saturday after authorities warned they were losing patience with the protests led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia's first president after independence from the Soviet Union who ran against Sarksyan.
Several hours later, hundreds of opposition supporters were pouring into a diplomatic area off the city centre fallowing a call from Ter-Petrosyan's headquarters to hold a peaceful rally.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it "condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators".
"I urge the authorities to use maximum restraint," OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, said in a statement.
"I am troubled that there are reports of casualties. I urge the authorities to release those detained, and I again call on the government and the opposition to engage in dialogue."
Police said they moved in after receiving information a coup was being prepared. In a statement, they said they had seized pistols and grenades.
One of Ter-Petrosyan's top allies dismissed this. "This information totally contradicts the reality," Stepan Demirchayn, leader of the opposition People's Party, told Reuters. "We use only peaceful means, and Ter-Petrosyan has reiterated this."
A Reuters correspondent saw two police cars with smashed windows and flat tires near the venue of the planned rally.
The protests had risked destabilizing Armenia, an ex-Soviet republic of 3.22 million people in the Caucasus mountains that is now emerging as a key transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea to world markets.
Disputed presidential elections sparked mass unrest in two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, that ultimately toppled two long-serving leaders.
"Permission or no permission (from the authorities), we will all the same press ahead with protests, because rallies and marches can only be banned when there is a state of emergency," Ter-Petrosyan told reporters.
"I am deeply convinced that even if Sarksyan stays on, he won't be a legitimate president," he said. "I have no doubt the people won't tolerate this."
Police said they moved in after being told that opposition protesters had been waiting to receive "large amounts of firearms, grenades, metal rods and truncheons."
Police said they had used force after protesters started throwing stones and metal rods at them.
"Calls for a violent coup were heard," the statement said. "The situation in the capital is fully under control."
Armenia's Health Ministry said 31 people, including six police officers, had been admitted to hospital after the clashes, Russian news agency reported.
Landlocked Armenia is still officially at war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Oil and gas pipelines operated by a BP-led consortium run through Azeri territory a few km (miles) from the conflict zone.
Ter-Petrosyan launched the protests after alleging Sarksyan had used ballot-stuffing and intimidation to steal victory. Western observers called the vote broadly fair.