TBILISI, Georgia (Combined Sources)–Police armed with truncheons clashed with opposition leaders and stick-wielding protesters Wednesday in the first major outbreak of violence in a month of demonstrations against President Mikhail Saakashvili, police and government opponents said.
Hours later, thousands of protesters converged on parliament in a late-night rally to demand the president’s resignation.
Police and opposition leaders accused each other of starting the clash, which occurred when opposition leaders and hundreds of protesters marched to police headquarters in the capital, Tbilisi, to demand the release of three jailed supporters.
Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said police used truncheons to beat back protesters who were climbing over a fence surrounding the building. Television footage showed protesters on one side of the fence swinging long wooden sticks at police on the other side.
It also showed at least two opposition leaders and several other people with blood on their bodies and clothing. A top opposition leader, Levan Gachechiladze, and other protesters appeared to have head injuries.
Opposition supporters said dozens were injured, and the Russian news agency Interfax cited medical personnel as saying at least 32 were hospitalized. Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze said 22 protesters, six police officers and a journalist were injured, and that none of the injuries was life-threatening.
Several opposition leaders said police fired rubber bullets, but Utiashvili denied that.
Zguladze said that police “only protected the building” and did not venture outside its grounds. She said both sides in the clash appeared to have thrown objects at each other, including the staffs of protest flags.
TV footage showed that some protesters managed to get over the fence, but they later ended up back outside. Utiashvili said there were no arrests.
Gachechiladze’s brother Giorgy told opposition Maestro TV that he got into the courtyard of the police headquarters and asked to see the jailed activists, but was thrown to the ground and beaten by about police with truncheons.
Shortly after the clash, some 2,000 protesters milled near the police building, blocking a major street not far from its gates. As midnight came, a crowd was swelling outside parliament on Tbilisi’s main avenue — the usual locus of the persistent street protests against Saakashvili.
Saakashvili’s opponents have been protesting since April 9, demanding he resign over Georgia’s disastrous war with Russia in August and over allegations of authoritarian rule. He has refused and said he will remain in office through the end of his term in 2013.
The violence deepened tension and raised the possibility of a chaotic denouement to Georgia’s confrontation.
After midnight, opposition leaders addressed a crowd of several thousand outside parliament.
“Nobody can frighten us,” said Nino Burdzhanadze, who was Saakashvili’s ally in the 2003 Rose Revolution protests that ushered him to power and is now a popular opposition leader. “We will achieve our goal, and Georgia will be a truly democratic country,” she said.
But opposition leaders urged supporters to protest peacefully.
Tension had been mounting after Saakashvili angered opponents with a claim that he talked down mutineers at a military base Tuesday. Georgian authorities backed down from initial allegations of a Russian-backed coup plot and said the aim of the mutiny was to disrupt NATO exercises that began near Tbilisi on Wednesday, despite complaints from Moscow, which has warned the West against helping Saakashvili rebuild Georgia’s military.
Opposition leaders called the incident a charade cooked up by Saakashvili to rally support amid pressure from the protesters.
There have been isolated incidents of violence during the demonstrations, but the authorities have vowed not to interfere as long as protesters do not instigate violence, fearing that a crackdown could swell the ranks of the opposition.
After Wednesday’s clash, Zguladze said police had been ordered to show restraint and to use force only if protesters threaten to break into public buildings.
A violent police crackdown on similar protests in 2007 damaged Saakashvili’s reputation and prompted some former allies to join the opposition.
Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, was first elected in 2004 after leading street protests. He was initially wildly popular, but many Georgians are furious with him for the mishandled the war with Russia, which resulted in major damage and a loss of territory. Russia has recognized the independence claims of two separatist provinces in Georgia and stationed thousands of troops on their territory.
Georgia straddles a key route for Caspian Sea oil and gas exports, and is at the center of tension between the West and Russia, which vocally opposes Saakashvili’s efforts to bring the former Soviet republic into NATO.
The United States and European Union accuse Russia of trying to redraw borders in the volatile Caucasus and say its military presence in the separatist provinces violates a cease-fire deal that ended the war. Moscow, meanwhile, says the West’s encroachment into the former Soviet Union is an attempt to create a sphere of influence in Russia’s back yard.
Amid the homegrown political turmoil and protests from Moscow, the NATO drills began on Wednesday, May 6 at Vaziani military base, about 20 kilometers outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Eighteen countries are participating in the maneuvers that are scheduled to last for about three weeks. The exercises will focus on crisis-response action and peacekeeping operations, defense officials told EurasiaNet.