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Armenia's political tensions still high after PM's coup talk

Political tensions in Armenia remained high Friday, a day after the prime minister accused top military officers who demanded his resignation of an attempted coup.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition calls to step down over a Nov. 10 peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The peace agreement saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.

Earlier this week, Pashinyan dismissed the first deputy chief of the military’s General Staff that includes the armed forces’ top officers. In response, the General Staff called Thursday for Pashinyan’s resignation, but he doubled down and ordered that the chief of the General Staff be dismissed.

An Armenian activist stays in a tent in front of government buildings during a rally to pressure Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign in Yerevan, Armenia, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Armenian opposition supporters warm themselves up with a campfire in Yerevan. Armenia has been gripped by a political crisis with the opposition demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and some opposition activists put up tents outside the government headquarters to raise pressure on Pashinyan. (Hrant KhachatryanPAN Photo via AP)

Pashinyan's spat with the top military officers encouraged the opposition supporters. Over 20,000 rallied in the Armenian capital, demanding the prime minister's resignation, while Pashinyan led his own supporters at a rival rally.

Some opposition demonstrators put up tents outside the government headquarters and barricaded the main avenue to press their demand for Pashinyan's resignation.

The top military officers didn't make any further moves Friday in the wake of their demand for Pashinyan to step down.

Opposition demonstrators warm themselves at a bonfire as they rally to pressure Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign in the center of Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister has spoken of an attempted military coup after facing the military's General Staff demand to step down. The developments come after months of protests sparked by the nation's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. (Karo SahakyanPAN Photo via AP)

Pashinyan's order on Thursday to dismiss the chief of the General Staff, Col.-Gen. Onik Gasparyan, is subject to approval by the nation’s largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who has three days to decide.

Sarkissian, who has had previous frictions with Pashinyan and earlier called on him to step down, met Friday with the General Staff chief and opposition leaders but didn't make any public statements.

Speaking at Friday's rally, opposition leader Vazgen Manukyan said that “the next few days will be decisive for our struggle.” He added that if Pashinyan succeeds in forcing the General Staff chief out, “the army will rise.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan waves to supporters during a rally in his support in the center of Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister has spoken of an attempted military coup after facing the military's General Staff demand for him to step down. The developments come after months of protests sparked by the nation's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. (Tigran MehrabyanPAN Photo via AP)

The crisis has its roots in Armenia’s humiliating defeat in heavy fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days. A Russia-brokered agreement ended the conflict in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces — after more than 6,000 people died on both sides.

Pashinyan has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.

The political crisis in Armenia is being watched closely, particularly in Russia and Turkey, which are competing for influence in the South Caucasus region.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, centre front left carrying a megaphone, walks with his wife Anna Akobyan and supporters surrounded by bodyguards and lots of police rally in the center of Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister has accused top military officers of attempting a coup after they demanded he step down. The standoff will add fuel to the months of protests calling for his resignation following the nation's defeat in a conflict with Azerbaijan. (Hrant KhachatryanPAN Photo via AP)

The United States and the European Union have urged all parties in Armenia to exercise calm and to de-escalate tensions.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

Opposition demonstrators set up tents as they rally to pressure Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign in the center of Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister has spoken of an attempted military coup after facing the military's General Staff demand to step down. The developments come after months of protests sparked by the nation's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. (Hayk BaghdasaryanPHOTOLURE via AP)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan speaks through a loudspeaker during a rally in the central in Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Armenia's prime minister accused top military officers on Thursday of attempting a coup after they demanded he step down, adding fuel to months long protests calling for his resignation following the nation's defeat in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Tigran MehrabyanPAN Photo via AP)