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.
Armenian law allows the postponing of elections by two weeks if one of the candidates is deemed to have suffered an insurmountable obstacle but the interested party needs first to complain to the central 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 over 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.
President Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and other politicians visited the presidential candidate in hospital vowing 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 normal electoral process," he added.
Ovik Abraamian, speaker of the Armenian parliament, 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.
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.
Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed his grave concern over the shooting.
"This attack is deeply distressing in view of the electoral process already underway, and I urge all stakeholders to refrain from any actions that might further aggravate the situation," said Lenarcic.
"We also urge the relevant authorities to pursue a robust investigation of this crime and prosecution of the perpetrators," he added in a statement.
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 is 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 under the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Hayrikyan's citizenship was returned and he came back to Armenia. He has remained active in Armenian political life ever since.