Armenian president refuses to fire armed forces chief at centre of political crisis

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenian President Armen Sarkissian refused to fire the head of the country’s armed forces on Saturday, intensifying a standoff between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the army over what Pashinyan said was an attempted coup to remove him.

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Pashinyan dismissed Chief of General Staff Onik Gasparyan on Thursday, but his sacking needed the formal approval of the president - who rejected the move as unconstitutional and said the army should be kept out of politics.

Hundreds of opposition supporters, who had been rallying in the centre of the capital, Yerevan, welcomed Sarkissian’s decision with cheers and applause after it was announced by the president’s office.

Pashinyan criticised the president’s move, saying in a statement on Facebook that “this decision doesn’t contribute to the solution of the current situation at all”.

Gasparyan has not commented in public about the coup accusations.

The army had called for the resignation of Pashinyan after what critics say was the government’s disastrous handling of a bloody six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh last year.

Pashinyan has faced calls to quit before, but it was the first time the military had called publicly for his resignation.

Pashinyan is entitled to send the decree back to the president for a second time, at which point Sarkissian should either sign it or send it to the constitutional court, presidential spokeswoman Zoya Barseghyan told Reuters.

Pashinyan said he would resubmit the decree.

If Sarkissian neither signs the decree nor sends it to the constitutional court, the decree comes into force by default.

“Without question, the armed forces must maintain neutrality in political matters,” the presidential office said in a statement on its website.

“Obviously, due to the war, today more than ever the staff of the armed forces need the support and attention of us all.”

Writing by Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Matthias Williams and Helen Popper