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Armenians mourn Karabakh war victims, pile pressure on PM to resign

People visit Yerablur Military Pantheon cemetery on the day of the Armenian nationwide mourning for Karabakh victims in Yerevan, December 19, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

Thousands of Armenians have marched through the capital Yerevan to mourn the victims of a six-week war with neighboring Azerbaijan, demanding that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan step down over his handling of the conflict.

Armenia began three days of mourning on Saturday for nearly 3,000 Armenians who were killed during the conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Clashes erupted between the ex-Soviet enemies over the disputed Caucasus region in late September. The two sides finally agreed to end hostilities in early October under a Russian-brokered deal, under which Armenia ceded swathes of territory to Azerbaijan.

The agreement was signed after the Azerbaijani army overwhelmed Armenian forces and threatened to advance on Karabakh’s main city of Khankendi, which Armenians have renamed Stepanakert after a 19th-century Bolshevik militant.

Russia and Turkey have sent peacekeeping forces to jointly monitor the truce.

The ceasefire deal prompted anger in Armenia, with the opposition accusing Pashinyan of being a “traitor” for agreeing to end the conflict on Azerbaijan’s terms.

Several public figures, including the influential head of Armenia's Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin, have called for the PM to step down. The opposition has called on Armenians to join a national strike on Monday to call for his resignation.

Pashinyan, accompanied by top officials, led the march on Saturday, under heavy security, to the Yerablur military cemetery, where victims of the conflict are buried.

“The entire nation has been through and is going through a nightmare,” Pashinyan said in a video address ahead of the march. “Sometimes it seems that all of our dreams have been dashed and our optimism destroyed,” he added.

Footage carried by Armenian television showed the prime minister’s critics shouting “Nikol is a traitor,” as his convoy passed by in the cemetery.

“He must not desecrate the graves of our children,” Misak Avetisyan, who lost a son in the war, told reporters. He said the prime minister should get down on his knees and “beg for forgiveness.”

A member of the Pashinyan-led procession, however, said he should not be blamed for the mistakes of previous leaders.

"He is not guilty of anything," said Karo Sargsyan.

Pashinyan, who swept to power in a peaceful revolution in May 2018, has so far rejected calls to resign.

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