Europe

Armenia leader intervenes in protest against predecessor

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Media captionNew President Armen Sargsyan tries to defuse protests

The new president of Armenia has intervened personally with opposition supporters protesting at his predecessor's attempts to retain power.

Armen Sargsyan walked up to the leader of the protests in the capital Yerevan to shake hands and chat briefly, apparently to propose formal talks.

Unrest has gripped the republic in the Caucasus Mountains for nine days.

Serzh Sargsyan (no relation) stepped down as president but returned as prime minister, breaking his own promise.

While he was president, the country shifted from a presidential system to a parliamentary republic, vesting real power in the office of the prime minister.

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Image caption Riot police have been holding back the protesters

Riot police have been facing off with crowds of demonstrators for days and scuffles have broken out, with a number of arrests.

Many Armenians want to see genuine change in their country but they feel that they are being deprived of that opportunity because the leadership remains the same, the BBC's Rayhan Demytrie reports.

The small landlocked country, population 3.1 million, saw an economic recovery last year, the World Bank reports.

However, it is vulnerable to developments in Russia, its biggest trading partner after the EU and a major destination for its migrant workers.

What happened in the crowd?

The president approached protest leader Nikol Pashinyan on Republic Square, removing his tie as he did so, apparently to emphasise it was an informal meeting.

They talked for about 10 minutes, reporters say, with Mr Sargsyan suggesting they move to a hotel to hold proper negotiations.

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Image caption Nikol Pashinyan has called for a "velvet revolution"

Mr Pashinyan declined the offer of immediate talks but asked for a guarantee that force would not be used against the demonstrators.

Escorted by his bodyguards, the president then walked back to his car and left as the crowd chanted "take a step - overthrow Serzh".

Mr Pashinyan later announced he would meet Serzh Sargsyan at hotel on Sunday morning. There was no immediate official confirmation that the meeting would take place.

Why is there such anger at Serzh Sargsyan?

Mr Pashinyan recently described the action he leads as a "velvet revolution", referring to the peaceful protests in 1989 that ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia (which later split into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

The veteran opposition activist, who was jailed over his part in violent protests against Mr Sargsyan in 2008, called on supporters to "paralyse the entire state system" because "power should pass to the people".

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Image caption Here Serzh Sargsyan's face is scored out on a poster

In the past, Serzh Sargsyan said he had no intention of becoming prime minister at the end of his second five-year presidential term.

However, on Tuesday he was chosen by parliament to serve as prime minister.

In 2008, when Mr Sargsyan was first elected president, demonstrations erupted, with protesters alleging vote-rigging. At least eight people died in clashes with the authorities.

His supporters argue that the tough veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Azerbaijan has provided the national security Armenia needs but he has been accused of failing to address continuing tensions with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Closer to home, critics have identified his rule with widespread poverty and over-dependence on Russia.

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