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Armenian president declares state of emergency

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  • NEW: Protest moves after crackdown at Freedom Square
  • Order sought after protests over last month's election turn violent
  • Demonstrators say the election was fraudulent
  • State of emergency could last until March 20, official says
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(CNN) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency Saturday night after a day of clashes between police and protesters, a spokeswoman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry said.

The protesters claim last month's presidential election was rigged.

The state of emergency will "hopefully bring some order" to the capital, Yerevan, said Salpi Ghazarian, assistant to the Armenian foreign minister, who spoke to CNN early Sunday.

The state of emergency could last until March 20, she said, but the government hopes "that it will be lifted sooner."

The clashes began when authorities used force to clear Freedom Square of thousands of demonstrators who had camped there for the past 10 days, according to a U.S. Embassy official.

Ghazarian said the authorities "moved in" because "they thought that there were arms there, and it turned out that they were right." Video Watch a report on clashes between police and the opposition »

The embassy official estimated that the demonstrations in Freedom Square grew to as many as 60,000 Armenians at times over the last 10 days.

As of early Sunday morning, Freedom Square was empty, Ghazarian said, but the protesters were demonstrating in a main square elsewhere in the city. Video Watch Ghazarian discuss the situation in Armenia »

"What is happening on the streets of Yerevan is people protesting what they consider to be unfair elections," Ghazarian said. "After the president was forced to declare a state of emergency, things have quieted down. There are a couple of burning cars, and there are a few hurt people," she said.

"We're convinced that this will come to an end soon."

She did not elaborate on the number of people injured or the extent of their injuries.

Witnesses told CNN that Saturday morning's action by Armenian riot police was bloody, but the U.S. official said there were no confirmed deaths or serious injuries.

An Armenian woman interviewed by CNN said there was "huge chaos" when police moved in.

"These are innocent people," she said. "They just want their freedom. They just want to be heard. They are being beaten up, some people have horrible wounds." She asked that CNN not use her name because she feared for her safety.

As night fell Saturday, the sounds of gunfire could be heard from the direction of the protesters' gathering, and tracer fire could be seen in the sky, according to another Yerevan resident, who also asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety.

The man said his wife saw two demonstrators hit by a police car earlier in the day. The car initially did not stop, he said, but the protesters surrounded the car, dragged the officers out and burned the vehicle, he said. The officers were able to escape, he said, but he did not know the condition of the protesters who were struck.

The protests began soon after the February 19 presidential election. Opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian lost to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, a political ally of outgoing President Kocharian.

The opposition party immediately accused the government of vote fraud and demanded that the results be voided.

Ghazarian said Sunday that the government had reached out to the opposition.

"We are hoping with the help of the international community, the opposition, the leader of the opposition, will come and enter a political dialogue rather than continuing this debate on the streets," she said.

Haroutiun Khachatrian, editor of the Noyan Tappan News Agency, told CNN that riot police arrested several hundred people in the square Saturday morning, including many opposition party officials. Ter-Petrosian was there but was not arrested, he said.

The opposition vowed to pursue its claims through legal means.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitored last month's Armenian election and concluded that it was mostly in line with international standards, although it did include some criticism in its report.

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The U.S. Embassy has warned the several hundred Americans living in Yerevan to stay at home and avoid the downtown area where the demonstrations have been taking place, the U.S. official said.

Armenia, population 3 million, is a former Soviet republic east of Turkey, south of Georgia and north of Iran. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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