TBILISI (AFP) — Baton-wielding police violently dispersed dozens of opposition protesters in the Georgian capital on Monday, witnesses said, as tensions flared after weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
Witnesses, including an AFP photographer, said dozens of police descended on the protesters when they gathered outside a police detention centre where clashes between police and the opposition had broken out last month.
“We came here to hold a peaceful rally. When we arrived and started the protest the police immediately started to crack down, beating people with batons and sticks,” one of the protesters, 22-year-old Levan Soselia, told AFP.
“People were running to escape and the police were chasing us and beating us,” he said.
An AFP photographer said both uniformed police and men in civilian clothes were hitting protesters with batons and that several people had been injured.
Police seized cameras and other equipment from photographers attempting to cover the incident. At least one photographer was badly beaten.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Shota Utiashvili played down the incident, calling it a “small fist fight” and saying no one had been seriously injured.
“The protesters blocked the entrance to the police station,” he told AFP. “The police told them to unblock the area and when they disobeyed the police tried to move them and a small fist fight broke out.”
Utiashvili said up to 20 protesters had been detained and that there were no reports of serious injuries.
Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze said the incident was “an attempt to provoke a civil confrontation.”
“We have been warning about this for a long time,” she told Rustavi-2 television. “The authorities are responsible for what is happening.”
About an hour after the incident, several hundred protesters were gathered outside the detention centre with some opposition leaders.
A few police were behind a fence inside the centre’s grounds but there were no signs of the dozens of people who had earlier dispersed protesters.
At the scene, Burjanadze told AFP that the “crackdown” was a result of the international community’s failure to condemn Georgian authorities for what the opposition claims are illegal arrests of its supporters.
“There was no adequate reaction to illegal arrests of opposition protesters and this encouraged the authorities to take such actions,” she said.
Opponents accuse President Mikheil Saakashvili of having mishandled a five-day war with Russia last August and of having become increasingly autocratic since coming to power after the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
Georgia’s opposition has been holding daily protests since April 9 to demand his resignation.
Clashes between police and protesters erupted twice last month, raising fears of wider unrest.
On Friday, protesters threw rocks and eggs at parliament speaker David Bakradze, prompting condemnation by Western diplomats in Tbilisi.