Armenia opposition chief urges new protests, strike

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Authorities beefed up the police presence and put in place cordons which some protesters broke through

An Armenian opposition leader on Monday urged demonstrators to take to the streets again, even after he and dozens of others were hurt in protests over moves by the country's former president to maintain his grip on power.

"I call on all of the population of Yerevan and other towns and cities in Armenia to take to the streets tomorrow (Tuesday), block the main axes, and start a strike," Nikol Pashinian told a rally.

He described Monday's demonstrations as a "turning point for the country".

During the rallies against former president Serzh Sarkisian, police used stun grenades against protesters who sought to break through a barbed wire cordon in the centre of Yerevan in an effort to get to the parliament building.

The pro-Moscow politician ended his second and final presidential term last week, but the ruling party has nominated him for the post of prime minister.

The opposition says a new parliamentary system of government will allow Sarkisian, 63, to maintain his grip on power.

Dozens were injured, including Pashinian -- who called the protests -- and a number of police officers.

Authorities said 46 people including six policemen sought medical help.

Pashinian, who was injured in the face and arms, was briefly taken to hospital.

Authorities called on him to end the protests, which they threatened to break up by force. But Pashinian later returned, sporting a bandaged arm, and vowed to continue the demonstrations.

Extra police and a water cannon have been deployed in the city centre, while prosecutors opened a criminal probe over mass riots in the capital.

The ruling Republican Party and the government-friendly Dashnaktsutyun Party formally nominated Sarkisian as candidate for the post of prime minister on Monday despite the protests.

Parliament is expected to elect him on Tuesday.

Earlier Monday, demonstrators marched through the centre of Yerevan and blocked streets, some chanting "Armenia without Serzh" and "Serzh is a liar."

"Our goal right now is to prevent Serzh Sarkisian from becoming the country's leader for a third time without violence and the use of force," Pashinian said.

Several hundred people sat or lay down on pavements, blocking roads leading to the parliament building and universities.

Some built barricades using cast-iron benches and metal trash cans.

- 'Fake agenda' -

Parliamentary vice-speaker Eduard Sharmazanov, who is the ruling party's spokesman, dismissed the protests as "the opposition's artificial and fake agenda".

"No one will prevent us from voting tomorrow for our candidate Serzh Sarkisian," he told AFP.

The rallies began on Friday when more than 4,000 people took part.

A shrewd former military officer, Sarkisian has been in charge of the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million since winning a presidential vote in 2008.

The country's new figurehead president, Armen Sarkisian, was sworn in last week but his powers will be weaker under a new parliamentary system of government.

The two men are not related.

Opposition politicians say the shift to a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister has been designed to increase Serzh Sarkisian's grip on power in the impoverished Moscow-allied country.

Tensions in Armenia often flare up during presidential and parliamentary elections.

After Sarkisian was first elected president in February 2008, 10 people died in bloody clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.