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Two Armenians who claimed they were freedom fighters avenging...

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Two Armenians who claimed they were freedom fighters avenging the massacre of their people by Turks, were sentenced today to 20 years in jail each for assassinating the Turkish ambassador to Yugoslavia.

Judge Tomica Sekularac presided over a 5-member jury during a 3-month trial held in Belgrade's central prison hospital because one of the killers, Haroutiony Levonian, is confined to a wheelchair after being wounded in the attack one year ago to the day.

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He sentenced Levonian, 23, and Raffi el Bekian, 20, to 20 years in jail each and the court also ruled the two Armenians expelled from Yugoslavia after serving the terms.

Under Yugoslavia's criminal code, the two could have been sentenced to death by firing squad. The highest prison term in Yugoslavia is 20 years and courts are usually reluctant to pass capital punishment.

Levonian and Bekian admitted they were members of a group called 'Justice Fighters against the Armenian genocide' amd demanded to be treated as freedom fighters and not international terrorists.

Armenian extremists, demanding a homeland and condemning Turkey for the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians, have killed more than 20 Turkish diplomats and their family members in attacks around the world since 1973.

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The two told the court that Armenians will undertake similar attacks on Turkish officials in the future.

Sekularac said the court established the facts of the killing and did not wish to consider a historic dispute between Turkey and Armenians.

The two Armenians, both holding Lebanese passports, staged a midday ambush March 9, 1983, at a busy intersection in downtown Belgrade just one bloc from the Turkish Embassy.

They opened fire with pistols at Ambassador Galip Balkar, 47, and his driver Necet Kaya, when the diplomat's limousine stopped at a traffic light.

Balkar was killed in the shooting and stray shots also killed a 24-year-old Yugoslav student and seriously wounded a 58-year-old retired Yugoslav army colonel.

An off-duty policeman shot and seriously wounded Levonian, who is now in a wheelchair.

Bekian was captured eight hours after the shooting when he tried to board a train in Novi Sad, 50 miles northwest of Belgrade.

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