MOSCOW -- Gunmen burst into a session of the Armenian parliament yesterday afternoon and sprayed the chamber with automatic weapons, killing the prime minister, the speaker and five other ranking politicians.
They took scores of parliament members hostage and demanded access to Armenian television and a helicopter last night.
Reporters and others in Yerevan, the capital, said the gunmen had announced that they were staging a coup, but there was no evidence of any wider action to overthrow the Armenian government.
A spokesman for the Armenian Embassy in Washington, Armen Kharazian, said: "There is no coup. The government is in full control of the situation."
The assassins reportedly gained entry to the parliament with reporters' accreditation cards and were led by Nairi Unanian, a former journalist with extreme nationalist leanings.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian reportedly was conducting negotiations with Unanian last night while soldiers and police surrounded the parliament building in the center of Yerevan.
Early today, at least three hostages were reportedly released, 10 hours after the incident began.
There was tremendous confusion and uncertainty about what had happened and why. Witnesses who had been in the chamber variously saw three, four or five gunmen. The numbers of those reported killed or taken hostage fluctuated sharply, as people who had escaped from the building tried to piece together what was happening.
The motive for the attack remained unclear.
Gegham Sarkisian, a consultant with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy group, said the issue might have been a perceived softening by the Armenian government toward neighboring Azerbaijan, with which Armenia waged a bloody war in the early 1990s.
But there are other reasons for discontent in the Caucasian country: The economy is in ruins, organized crime is rampant and political corruption is widespread.
When the gunmen entered the parliamentary chamber, where a question-and-answer session with members of the Cabinet was taking place, one of them approached Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and said: "Enough of drinking our blood."
The premier answered, "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children."
From 6 feet away, the gunman opened fire.
Also killed was the speaker, Karen Demirchian, who was Armenia's Soviet-era leader before resurrecting his political career with a run for the presidency last year.
The trouble in Armenia, coupled with Russia's war in Chechnya, threatens to engulf the Caucasus Mountains region in conflict. Between the two hot spots lies Georgia, which is to conduct potentially divisive parliamentary elections Sunday amid deteriorating relations with Moscow. To the east lies Azerbaijan, potentially oil-rich and calm under authoritarian rule.
Armenia's best friends in the region have been Iran and Russia, both of which have hoped to use Yerevan as a bulwark against encroachment into the region by the oil interests of the United States and other Western nations.
Throughout a decade of difficult politics, the Azerbaijan issue has dominated. The two former Soviet republics went to war over
the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was inhabited by Armenians but administered by Azerbaijan, as soon as Moscow's control was lifted.
Armenia, in essence, won that war; the Azeris were driven out of Karabakh, and a cease-fire has prevailed since 1994. But since then, Western nations have wooed Azerbaijan, and prosperity beckons. Armenia, consumed with hatred for the Azeris, has been unable to move forward.
Armenia's president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was forced to resign last year after he said he might consider talks with the Azeris. Vazgen Sarkisian was the prime mover in forcing him out, and Sarkisian's hand-picked candidate, Kocharian, went on to win election as the new president.
In parliamentary elections this year, Sarkisian teamed with Kocharian's opponent, Karen Demirchian, in what they called the Unity bloc. Denouncing accommodation with Azerbaijan, they swept to power in elections that were widely considered to be suspect, with Sarkisian becoming prime minister and Demirchian taking the speaker's post.
Some reports said Unity received hidden backing from the Russians, who were alarmed at what they believed to be Kocharian's mellowing attitude toward the West.
Sarkisian, 40, a former athletic trainer and one-time Soviet propaganda official, had been linked to a militia group called the Yerkrapah Battalion. Demirchian, a popular 67-year-old Communist who once sat on the Politburo in Moscow, appealed to Armenians nostalgic for the stability and well-being of the past.
In recent days, the United States has again been pressing Azerbaijan and Armenia to reach an agreement. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, flew from Baku to Yerevan yesterday, where he met with Sarkisian, among others, hours before the prime minister was assassinated. Talbott had left the country before the attack on parliament.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the assassins appear to be a splinter group of the Dashnak party, 31 of whose members were jailed in 1995 for plotting a coup. A radical faction of the Dashnaks, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide, has been blamed for terrorist attacks against Turkish targets around the world. They include a 1976 bombing in New York against the Turkish mission to the United Nations in which four pedestrians were wounded, and a 1981 bombing that heavily damaged the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles, but caused no injuries.
Unanian, the leader of the attackers, was the founder of Armenia's Boy Scouts after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Disillusioned with the government, he left to live in Ukraine for several years, apparently returning about a year ago.
He was once a member of the nationalist Dashnak party, but the party issued a statement last night saying that he had been expelled four years ago.
Other gunmen reportedly included his brother and their uncle.
Hostages who remained inside the parliament with him last night were able to communicate using their cellular phones, and, according to one report, Unanian said his intent had been to kill Sarkisian, the prime minister. He said the others who were killed were struck by stray bullets.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.