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Armenia presidential candidate wounded in shooting

Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan lies in bed in a hospital room in Yerevan, early on February 1, 2013
Armenian presidential candidate, head of the Union for National Self-Determination, Paruyr Hayrikyan lies in bed in a hospital room in Yerevan, early on February 1, 2013. He was wounded in a gun attack said Friday he would seek a two-week postponement of

A prominent candidate in Armenia's presidential elections who was wounded in a gun attack said Friday he would seek a two-week postponement of the polls set for February 18.

"Doctors say I must undergo lengthy treatment," Paruyr Hayrikyan, 63, told public television after he was shot in the chest in an attack that shocked the ex-Soviet state.

He noted that Armenian law allows polls to be postponed by two weeks if a candidate is deemed to have suffered an insurmountable obstacle.

If the candidate is still unable to take part after two weeks, new elections must be called for 40 days later -- a result Hayrikyan said he wished to avoid.

Hayrikyan, head of the Union for National Self-Determination, is one of Armenia's best-known politicians and a veteran figure who was jailed in Soviet times and then exiled for promoting Armenian independence.

Police said Hayrikyan was rushed to hospital after being shot in the upper chest in central Yerevan as he was heading home late Thursday.

Doctors successfully removed the bullet in a one-hour operation, health ministry spokesman Anahit Haytayan told AFP.

A criminal probe was swiftly launched to find the gunman, police said.

Hayrikyan gave his first interview from his hospital bed, looking pale and speaking in a quiet voice.

The candidate said the attack was reminiscent of Soviet days, when special service operatives persecuted him as a dissident.

"It is their style," he said in the somewhat rambling interview, in which he also linked the attack to a political statement he made saying that Armenia had suffered under tsarist Russia.

"I think that the attempt was linked to this statement, since I have no personal enemies," he said.

Despite being a respected figure, Hayrikyan was not seen as a serious challenger to President Serzh Sarkisian, who faces six other candidates besides Hayrikyan in the polls with the incumbent tipped to win.

President Sarkisian, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation) and other politicians visited Hayrikyan in hospital vowing that Armenia would not be destabilised.

"The disgusting crime has been directed not only against the presidential candidate, but also against our state," President Sarkisian told reporters.

"It is evident that those who are behind this crime are pursuing the goal to affect the normal electoral process," he added.

Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus media institute, said Hayrikyan was targeted as a "symbolic figure" of Armenia's independence.

"This is a person who was in prisons and camps for 20 years for this independence. This (shooting) was aimed at destabilising the country," he told AFP.

The Soviet-era dissident and veteran politician spent several years in Soviet labour camps and was exiled to Ethiopia before later being granted asylum in the United States.

In the period of glasnost under the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Hayrikyan's citizenship was restored and he returned to Armenia. He has remained active in Armenian political life ever since.

Sarkisian's governing Republican Party last year won parliamentary elections that strengthened his grip on power but highlighted the fragility of Armenia's fragile democracy.

International observers criticised the 2012 vote, claiming a series of democratic failures.

The authorities have promised a fair vote this month, as they seek to avoid a repeat of violent clashes between police and protesters after a disputed presidential election in 2008 left 10 people dead.

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