Armenia presidential candidate wounded in shooting

An unknown attacker shot and wounded a prominent candidate in Armenia's presidential elections, rocking the ex-Soviet state less than three weeks before it goes to the polls, police said Friday.

Paruyr 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 his promotion of Armenian independence.

Officials said that the polls could be postponed after the attack on Hayrikyan, who despite being a respected figure was not seen as a serious challenger to the rule of incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian.

However the risk of any delay has yet to be confirmed by the election commission.

Hayrikyan was in a stable condition in hospital after the attack late on Thursday. Doctors successfully removed the bullet from his body in a one-hour operation, health ministry spokesman Anahit Haytayan told AFP.

Police said Hayrikyan was shot in the upper chest area in central Yerevan as he was heading home, and was immediately taken to hospital.

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

Pictures from the hospital where Hayrikyan is being treated showed him lying on a ward bed with just his head visible under the bedclothes.

Armenians are due to go to the polls on February 18 with Sarkisian widely expected to hold off a challenge from seven other candidates including Hayrikyan.

"This shot was not just directed against Hayrikyan but against the state," said deputy parliament speaker Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party.

Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and other politicians visited the presidential candidate in hospital.

"The attempt is a blow to our state, to the state institutions," Tigran Sarkisian, who is not related to the president, told journalists.

"I spoke with Paruyr Hayrikyan, the doctors say his condition is satisfactory," said Ovik Abraamian, speaker of the Armenian parliament.

"I am sure that whoever committed this crime and the forces behind them will not destabilise the situation," he added.

Abraamian said that, under the law, the upcoming presidential elections might be postponed for two weeks in case Hayrikyan is not able to continue his campaign.

The Armenian leader's governing Republican Party last year won parliamentary elections that strengthened Sarkisian's grip on power but highlighted problems with the ex-Soviet state'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 the violent clashes between police and protesters after the disputed presidential election in 2008 that left 10 people dead.

A Soviet-era dissident and veteran politician, Hayrikyan, 63, spent several years in prisons as a prominent proponent of Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union.

He was not considered a major challenger to Sarkisian in the elections but was respected for his anti-corruption stance.

After repeated spells in USSR labour camps for his activism, Hayrikyan was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled to Ethiopia before being later granted asylum in the United States.

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