Reuters International

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan on Friday called on gunmen occupying a Yerevan police station to lay down their arms and release four hostages they seized in a bid to have a jailed opposition leader released.

The gunmen seized the station and hostages in the capital on Sunday, killing a police officer and wounding two others. They released two hostages on the same day and three more on Monday.

Police clashed on Wednesday with hundreds of demonstrators showing support for the gunmen, firing tear gas and detonating smoke grenades after protesters pelted them with stones at them.

About 140 people were detained and 51 were injured, including 29 policemen.

"I call on the armed group to lay down their arms as soon as possible. We acted and still act very patiently because the life and health of each citizen is very valuable to us," Sarksyan said in a statement.

He set no deadline or state what steps the authorities would take if the gunmen refused to surrender, saying only that the authorities had decided not to use force to try to release the hostages in the hope this would "sober up the gunmen".

"This situation has lasted longer than we can afford," he said. "We don't have the right to allow our society to become a hostage of this situation."

The hostage-takers' main demand is the release of Jirair Sefilian, an opposition leader accused by authorities in the ex-Soviet state of plotting civil unrest. Sefilian was jailed in June over allegations of illegally possessing weapons.

Sefilian, a former military commander, has accused Sarksyan of mishandling a long-running conflict between pro-Armenian separatists and the breakaway Azeri region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

A Moscow-brokered ceasefire halted four days of violence in the South Caucasus region on April 5, the worst flare-up in years, but sporadic shooting persists at night and some deaths have been reported.

"There are many people in Armenia who are dissatisfied, but no one should think that they can take an advantage of this situation and undermine our statehood," Sarksyan said.

(Reporting By Hasmik Mrktchyan; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Tom Heneghan)

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 Reuters International