The leader of Armenia's opposition Homeland party, Artur Vanetsyan, has been arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government and kill the country's embattled prime minister, as the country's main security body said it had thwarted an assassination attempt.
Vanetsyan, who formerly headed Armenia's National Security Service (NSS), was detained after his arrival for a meeting with the service's Investigative Department on Saturday, according to his lawyer.
"Vanetsyan was detained on suspicion of usurping power and preparing the assassination of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan," attorney Lusine Sahakian wrote on Facebook.
In addition, Sahakian wrote, “illegal searches" were carried out in the apartment of Vanetsyan's parents and an office affiliated with the Homeland party.
Both Sahakian and Vanetsyan’s Homeland party condemned the moves as politically motivated.
The NSS has not confirmed Vanetsyan's arrest, but in a statement Saturday it said that it had thwarted an assassination attempt against Pashinyan.
"The National Security Service of the Republic of Armenia has revealed cases of illegal acquisition and storage of weapons, ammunition and explosives by a group of people with the aim of seizing power in the Republic of Armenia," the statement said. "It is clarified that the attackers, who did not agree with the domestic and foreign policy of the state, intended to seize power by killing the head of government."
The Homeland party said in a statement that Vanetsyan's arrest was part of the Armenian authorities’ efforts to quell opposition protests against a Russia-mediated cease-fire agreement that stopped fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan's agreement to the truce with Azerbaijan on Tuesday prompted a furious reaction in the Armenian capital, with protesters storming government buildings and parliament.
Homeland is one of 17 Armenian opposition groups that launched the protests and demanded Pashinyan’s resignation. They accuse Pashinyan of capitulating to Azerbaijan and committing high treason.
On Wednesday, 10 prominent opposition figures, including Vanetsyan, were arrested and accused of "organizing illegal violent mass disorder.” The detentions were denounced by the opposition as illegal, and the opposition figures were released two days later.
Vanetsyan, 40, was appointed as head of the NSS immediately after the 2018 revolution that brought Pashinyan to power. He quickly became an influential member of Pashinyan’s entourage, overseeing high-profile corruption investigations initiated by Armenia’s new leadership.
Vanetsyan resigned in September 2019 after a falling out with the prime minister. He has since repeatedly accused Pashinyan of incompetence and misrule, prompting angry responses from the premier and his political allies.
While the Moscow-brokered truce ended fighting that has killed more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians on each side, it has been rejected by Armenians because it allows Azerbaijan to keep large swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its majority Armenian population has governed its own affairs since Azerbaijani troops and Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.
The most recent fighting broke out in late September.