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Armenian opposition pushes PM to step down over peace deal

December 2, 2020 GMT
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In this photo provided by the Armenian Prime Minister Press Service via PAN Photo, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses the nation in Yerevan, Armenia, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Tigran Mehrabyan, Armenian Prime Minister Press Service/PAN Photo via AP)
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In this photo provided by the Armenian Prime Minister Press Service via PAN Photo, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses the nation in Yerevan, Armenia, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Tigran Mehrabyan, Armenian Prime Minister Press Service/PAN Photo via AP)

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Armenia’s capital Wednesday to continue to pressure the ex-Soviet nation’s prime minister to resign over a peace deal with neighboring Azerbaijan that domestic critics see as a betrayal of national interests.

The Russia-brokered agreement took effect on Nov. 10 and followed 44 days of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, during which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces and wedged deep into the separatist territory.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.

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Some 4,000 protesters marched across downtown Yerevan Wednesday chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, go away!” Police detained scores of demonstrators at a smaller protest on Tuesday, but didn’t interfere with the larger rally.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That conflict left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but large chunks of surrounding lands in Armenian hands.

The peace agreement Pashinyan signed saw the return to Azerbaijan of a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh. It also obliged Armenia to hand over all of the regions it held outside the separatist region. Azerbaijan completed reclaiming those territories on Tuesday when it took over the Lachin region located between the Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the peace deal and to facilitate the return of refugees. The Russian troops will also ensure safe transit between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia across the Lachin region.

Speaking Wednesday during a video call with the leaders of nations that are part of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Armenia, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Pashinyan for his personal courage in making “painful but necessary decisions” to end the fighting.

Pashinyan, in his turn, thanked Putin for mediating the peace deal and hailed the Russian peacekeepers as “the guarantors of peace and security in the region.”

Armenian opposition leaders hold Pashinyan responsible for failing to negotiate an earlier end to the hostilities at terms that could have been more beneficial for Armenia. However, Artur Vanetsyan, the former head of the National Security Service who leads the Homeland opposition party, has emphasized that the opposition wasn’t pushing for the annulment of the peace deal.

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“The current authorities that have suffered a complete failure must step down immediately and allow other political forces to try to at least improve the situation,” Vanetsyan said. “Pashinyan’s resignation would offer a chance to save our dignity.”

The peace agreement has been celebrated as a triumph in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday declared a new national holiday, dubbed Victory Day, to mark the day of the deal’s signing.

“The Azerbaijani people’s will and determination, the country’s economic power, the creation of a modern army and the national unity were the key factors behind our victory,” Aliyev said in his decree.

Armenia’s Health Ministry said Wednesday that at least 2,718 Armenian servicemen were killed in the 44 days of fighting. Azerbaijan’s government said 94 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and more than 400 were wounded but refused to reveal the nation’s military losses.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.