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Thousands challenge victory of Armenian PM in presidential vote in 2nd day of protests
Opposition supporters shout during a rally in Yerevan, Armenia, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008. Thousands of opposition supporters rallied for a second straight day in Armenia's capital Thursday, claiming the presidential election was rigged and vowing to protest until a new vote is held. - photo by Associated Press
    YEREVAN, Armenia — Tens of thousands of opposition supporters returned to the streets of Armenia’s capital on Thursday to galvanize support for their claim that the presidential election was rigged.
    Activists set up about a dozen tents on the square outside Yerevan’s opera house and promised round-the-clock protests until a new vote is held.
    Thousands had marched through Yerevan on Wednesday, when election officials said that Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian — the favored successor of outgoing President Robert Kocharian — received almost 53 percent of the vote, enough to win Tuesday’s election outright.
    Opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian won 21.5 percent.
    Opponents have said the election was marred by widespread violations and violence targeting opposition activists who monitored the vote. But they face an uphill struggle to muster enough support to force a new vote.
    The observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there were concerns about the vote count, but issued a generally positive assessment. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose powerful country has close ties with Armenia, congratulated Sarkisian on his victory.
    The opposition says the real winner was Ter-Petrosian, who was Armenia’s first president after the 1991 Soviet breakup.
    An estimated 25,000 protesters waved flags Thursday, raised clenched fists and shouted, ‘‘Levon! Levon!’’ as Ter-Petrosian claimed that two deputy defense ministers had switched to his side and promised that the army would not intervene in the demonstration.
    ‘‘Both deputy ministers stand together with the people and they will defend the candidate who has the people’s trust,’’ Ter-Petrosian said. ‘‘The army will not intervene in politics.’’
    The claim could not immediately be verified.
    In spite of the freezing temperatures, the mood was festive, with fireworks loud music and traditional Caucasian dancing.
    No police were visible on the square.
    ‘‘Today we begin nonstop protests and rallies,’’ Ter-Petrosian aide Nicol Pashinian said. ‘‘We’re going to stay here until we win.’’
    The standoff has raised concerns of instability in the volatile, strategic country at the junction of the energy-rich Caspian Sea region and southern Europe, with Russia and Iran nearby.
    Memories of economic hardships of the early 1990s and the devastating conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh are still fresh. Many Armenians long for calm and stability.
    ‘‘I am already sick and tired of all these rallies — every time after elections they stage these shows and prevent people from going about their business,’’ said Vladimir Tatevosian, 39, a construction engineer in Yerevan.
    The capital was the scene of weeks-long protests following Kocharian’s re-election in 2003, which the opposition also called fraudulent. The protests never gained momentum, however.
    Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report.

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