by Joseph Alexander Smith, reporting from Tbilisi for commonspace.eu.
Border guards in Armenia have detained a Russian soldier serving in the northern city of Gyumri who is suspected of shooting dead six members of the same family on January 12.
According to news agency News.am, Valery Permyakov was undertaking compulsory military service at the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, the largest Russian base in Armenia. He was confirmed missing from the base on Monday evening and was apprehended by border guards in the village of Bayandur in the vicinity of the Armenian-Turkish border in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
A manhunt for Permyakov was launched after the bodies of six members of the Avetisyan family were discovered on Monday with gunshot wounds, including five adults and one child. A six-month old baby with serious injuries was also discovered at the address on Myasnikyan Street and taken to the local hospital where he remains in a critical condition.
News reports of Permyakov's testimony emerged later on the morning of January 13. According to First Deputy Chief of Police in Gyumri, Hunan Poghosyan speaking to News.am, Permyakov alleges that he left his military post, went for a stroll and entered the house on Myasnikyan Street looking for drinking water. After no one answered his knocking, Permyakov apparently forced his way into the house and woke the family up after which shots were fired.
It has also emerged that he will be charged with deserting his military post, fleeing his military base with a weapon and attempting to cross the Armenian border after being declared "missing" from the base on Monday night.
The Russian embassy in Armenia was swift to condemn the attack, saying that they were "appalled" by the attack in a statement of condolence released on Monday evening. "The relevant authorities of the Republic of Armenia and the Russian Federation are carrying out the necessary investigation procedures aimed at an objective and comprehensive investigation into the incident," read the statement. "Investigation teams coordinate their efforts in full compliance with the agreement on the terms of the 102nd military base on the territory of Armenia."
The Embassy statement was followed by a phone conversation between Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in which the Russian Foreign Minister pledged to assist Armenian law enforcement agencies with the investigation.
It is not yet known whether Permyakov will stand trial in Armenia or Russia, although there is evidence that the Russian side would prefer the latter. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian Ministry of Defence has formed an ad hoc investigative commission headed by First Deputy Defence Minister Arkady Bakhin. In the immediate wake of the killings, the Armenian President had also set up a commission to investigate.
However, in his statement on Tuesday morning, Poghosyan told News.am that the Armenian police would be conducting the investigation. "They tend to want us [the Armenian police] to investigate," he said, "since the incident occurred here. It's a serious crime and I believe we will investigate the case."
The latest tragedy isn't the first time personnel from 102nd Military Base have been involved in local fatalities. In April 2013, two local youths were killed after stepping on a land mine while pasturing animals in a field outside Vahramaberd village. The field had recently been passed to the military base for use as a shooting range and the incident raised questions about the level of security around the site, although after investigation, the base bore no legal responsibility for the fatalities. In 1999, two servicemen from the base were convicted after entering the city and drunkenly shooting at local houses and people with machine guns, resulting in two deaths and ten severe injuries.
Armenia and Russia agreed to extend the Russian lease on the base until 2044 in an agreement reached in 2010. Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to the base in 2013 confirmed Russia and Armenia's strategic interest in the base, with Armenians citing the Russian presence as crucial to their national defence should hostilities resume with neighbouring Azerbaijan.
photo: Russian army conscript Valery Pemyakov, accused of killing six members of an Armenian family in Gyumri.