Protesters in Armenia demand PM resign over border villages dispute

Eurasian Economic Union summit held in Moscow

TBILISI (Reuters) - A big crowd of protesters gathered in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Thursday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over his decision to cede several border villages to neighbour and longtime rival Azerbaijan.

Armenia said last month it would return the uninhabited villages in what both sides said was an important milestone as they edge towards a peace deal after fighting two wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The decision has angered many in Armenia. Almost 100 people protesting the move were detained last month in Yerevan after police said they refused to comply with their orders.

Protesters led by a senior Armenian cleric reached Yerevan on Thursday after walking for several days from a village in the country's northeast, a distance of some 100 miles (160 km).

Video posted by Armenian media on Thursday showed a crowd of thousands of people gathering in Yerevan's central Republic Square and waving Armenian flags.

"Nikol Pashinyan, we are giving you an hour to resign", the cleric, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, was cited by Armenian media as saying.

"You no longer have any authority in Armenia".

Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia and traditionally Moscow's closest partner in the South Caucasus, but bilateral relations have sharply deteriorated in recent months as Yerevan has sought to build ties with the West, blaming Russia for failing to defend it from Azerbaijan.

A Kremlin spokesman was quoted by Interfax news agency on Thursday as saying Moscow has agreed to withdraw Russian forces and border guards from various parts of Armenia at Yerevan's request.

The announcement follows the departure of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers from in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region which Azerbaijan returned by force in September last year, prompting an exodus of 100,000 ethnic Armenians who had enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in the 1990s.

(Writing by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)