Russia hopes for "peaceful settlement" of violence in Armenia

(dpa) - Russia said Monday it hoped for a "peaceful settlement" in Armenia after violent clashes between police and protestors that left eight dead.

The Foreign Ministry statement expressing "heartfelt condolences" was the first comment from Moscow on the 14-days of mass unrest in the post-Soviet state that is Russia's closest ally in the Caucasus.

President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian - seen as the establishment and Moscow-friendly candidate - for his outright victory in the first round of presidential elections.

Putin described Sarkisian's win as "contributing to the stability in the Caucasus."

Days of thousands-strong opposition protest calling the February 19 vote rigged culminated in overnight clashes with security forces that left eight people, including one policeman, dead on Sunday.

Armoured vehicles and troops with assault rifles were patrolling the capital Yerevan after outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency, in the wake of the violence.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday it "hoped that the measures taken by the Armenian leaders will bring about the settlement of the domestic political situation ... ensuring the security of the Armenian people and the country's stable development."

The Russian embassy in Yerevan said Russian citizens were among those injured on the weekend, news agency Interfax reported.

Local media reported dozens of injured opposition supporters of failed presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, while the police said 33 of its members were hurt.

The small Caucasus state of 3.2 million has emerged as a strategically important region, lying along gas routes from the energy-rich Caspian Sea region to Europe.

The United States also has an interest in competing with Russian influence in the country because of Armenia's proximity to Iran and the presence of a Russian military base.

Western powers fear instability in the region could disrupt gas routes and further undermine a fragile security situation with Armenia's neighbours.

Landlocked Armenia faces blockades along two of those borders with Azerbaijan over a protracted territorial dispute and with Turkey, which has been angered by Yerevan's lobbying for international recognition of the killing of Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman Empire as a "genocide".

Sarkisian is expected to keep the line set by his political mentor incumbent Kocharian during his decade at the helm, particularly strong ties with Russia, to offset its difficult relations in the region.

Kocharian on Monday congratulated Kremlin favourite Dmitry Medvedev on his landslide victory in Russian presidential elections.

"Armenia highly appreciates partnership relations of the two countries and their strategic cooperation in all directions," Kocharian was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The weekend violence was the worst in Armenia's post-Soviet history, causing opposition leader Ter-Petrosian to call for a 20-day halt to demonstrations, abiding by the rules of the emergency law.

But he promised to renew protest at the end of the interval.

Ter-Petrosian refuses to accept official results which showed him with 21.43 per cent of the vote, far behind Sarkisian who won just over the 50-per-cent hurdle needed to avoid a run-off with the second-place finisher.

The opposition has lodged an appeal with the Constitutional Court to invalidate the results, complaining of mass voting violations, including the beating and kidnapping of its supporters at the polls.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's vote-monitoring arm declared the elections mostly in adherence with international standards.

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