TBILISI (AFP)–Georgia Wednesday recalled its ambassador from Russia amid violent clashes between anti-government protestors and police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the foreign ministry said.
The ministry said the ambassador was being recalled to Tbilisi "for consultations."
Riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon today against thousands of protesters who were demanding the resignation of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President.
Hundreds of special forces troops, their faces covered by gas masks, used batons to disperse about 3,000 opposition demonstrators outside the Parliament in the capital, Tbilisi.
Running battles broke out along the city’s main Rustaveli Avenue as tear gas swirled through the air. Police later fired rubber bullets as thousands of people regrouped to continue protests in a nearby square.
The violence erupted on the sixth day of demonstrations against Saakashvili by a coalition of opposition parties. The strongly pro-Western President is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he swept to power on a wave of popular support in the Rose Revolution of 2003.
This was the first use of force by police since the protests began last Friday, when 50,000 people gathered outside the Parliament. The Opposition claims that Saakashvili has become corrupt and authoritarian, while one former minister has accused him of ordering political assassinations.
Saakashvili has dismissed the allegations and accused Russia of seeking to destabilise Georgia. He has clashed repeatedly with President Putin in his efforts to move his Caucasus republic out of Russia’s orbit and into Nato and the European Union.
Georgia recalled its Ambassador in Moscow for urgent consultations as officials in Tbilisi accused Russian special services of stirring up the protests.
Givi Targamadze, the head of Georgia’s parliamentary committee for defence and security, said: “Russia has launched a large-scale attack against Georgia. We hope that our citizens will realize who the Opposition is working for.”
Opposition leaders said that the police attack would strengthen their resolve to oust Saakashvili. Levan Gachecheladze said that the authorities had shown their “true face — truncheons and gas. They used force against peaceful people and they will pay for this”.
David Tkeshelashvili, the Health Minister, said that hospitals had treated 250 people after the clashes, most for the effects of tear gas. Witnesses reported seeing some demonstrators dragged, bleeding, into police cars.
“These people are fascists, but 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,” said Nino Khornauli, 55, one of the protesters.
The demonstrations have ominous echoes of Saakashvili’s rise to power in November 2003, when he led a storming of Parliament to overthrow Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime after protests over rigged elections. The Opposition is also demanding fresh parliamentary elections as well as the President’s resignation.
Georgia faces the prospect of renewed political crisis as the authorities seek to avert a full-scale revolt. Opposition leaders urged people to join new demonstrations in Tbilisi and there were reports that protests had broken out in regional cities.
Marina Kuparadze, 35, said that she had supported the President in the Rose Revolution, but added: “After what he did today he has in fact become a political corpse.” Nino Burdjanadze, the Speaker of Parliament and a close ally of Saakashvili, pleaded with the Opposition to negotiate. She said: “The country does not need disorder and instability. We must move to dialogue.”
Zurab Nogaideli, the Prime Minister, defended the police action and blamed demonstrators for the violence. He said: “We have democracy and everybody can express their views and hold rallies. But part of the protesters wanted to block the road and we took the decision to clear it.”