Violent protests engulf Georgian capital
Georgian police firing rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons fought running battles with anti-government protesters on Wednesday, plunging the ex-Soviet republic’s capital, Tbilisi, into chaos.
All day hundreds of riot police in black body armour clashed with demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
The Health Ministry said that 360 people asked for medical help and that nine were hospitalised.
In a sign that the Georgian authorities believe the unrest to be linked to giant neighbour Russia, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was recalling its ambassador from Moscow “for consultations”.
The ministry also summoned Russia’s ambassador over claims aired on Wednesday on Georgian television that opposition leaders have been meeting secretly with Russian diplomats, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
The violence first erupted on Wednesday when police dispersed a six-day-old rally on Rustaveli Avenue near Parliament, in the centre of the ancient city.
They then attacked demonstrators who had regrouped on the other side of the Mkvari River, firing what appeared to be rubber bullets directly into the crowd. Georgian television also reported that rubber bullets were being used.
Some demonstrators fought back with sticks, stones and bottles. Georgian television showed one riot police officer bleeding from the head after he lost his helmet and was pelted with rocks.
Saakashvili, who has enacted major free-market reforms in Georgia and forged strong links with Western capitals, was due to speak on television shortly. He has previously accused businessmen from Russia, Georgia’s former ruler, of fomenting the unrest.
Speaker of Parliament Nino Burdjanadze, a close ally of Saakashvili, appealed to all sides “to go home. Everyone should remain calm,” she said.
But protesters, who accuse Saakashvili of corruption and involvement in political killings, vowed to keep up their rebellion.
“We are demanding Saakashvili’s resignation after such terrible and savage use of force. Such uncivilised methods cannot be allowed by any state,” Levan Berdenishvili, a leader of the opposition, said.
One protestor fleeing police, Nino Khornauli (55), described the authorities as “fascists”.
“We’re not going to stop. We’ll be back tonight; we’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll be back as long as it takes,” she said.
Demonstrators had been occupying the central Rustaveli Avenue outside Parliament since last Friday. Unarmed police moved in early on Wednesday to clear the avenue to traffic, but were overwhelmed by the protesters, leading to a brawl and the deployment of riot police.
Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli blamed protesters for triggering the unrest. “The demonstrators wanted to block Rustaveli Avenue although they had room to stand on the pavement. Some of them decided to force their way through police and occupy the avenue. The police used water and tear gas,” he said.
But Levan Gachecheladze, an opposition leader, accused the authorities of showing their “true face—truncheons and tear gas. They used force against peaceful people and they will pay for this.”
Another opposition leader, Giorgi Khaindrava, was briefly detained on charges of resisting police and refusing to take a drug test, Georgian television reports said.
Saakashvili, who accuses Russia of working to undermine Georgian independence, said on Sunday that “Russian oligarchic forces are attempting to destabilise” the ex-Soviet republic ahead of Russia’s December parliamentary and March presidential elections.
The protests started last week after a scandal involving Irakly Okruashvili, a former defence minister and estranged ally of Saakashvili who accuses the president of being behind political killings.
Okruashvili himself is wanted on corruption charges. He is currently believed to be in Germany, where he went last week.—Sapa-AFP