TBILISI (Agence France Presse)—Two people were killed and dozens injured Thursday when Georgian riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a five-day rally against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-Western rule.
Police fired rubber bullets and water cannon to beat back hundreds of people who had gathered in front of a grandstand from which Saakashvili later watched a showpiece military parade marking Georgia’s independence from Russia.
The government said 37 people had been hospitalised and 90 others detained for two months.
Russia said the night-time police raid showed Saakashvili “cannot be trusted.”
Saakashvili said the two people killed had been run over by a motorcade belonging to one of the opposition leaders and accused those who rose against him of working on behalf of the “occupation” forces of the Kremlin.
“These provocations are being prepared from outside the country,” Saakashvili told the nation in a television appearance.
“We will be vigilant and we will always respond adequately to any provocation from our enemy and occupier,” he said.
Russia seized two Georgian republics at the end of a five-day war in August 2008 and continues to impose an economic blockade on its tiny Caucasus neighbour — a country with few resources or other natural trading partners.
But Saakashvili has used the time since the war to reaffirm his alliance with the United States and still enjoys broad public supported that has left opposition leaders splintered and fighting among themselves.
The government — sensitive to the condemnation that began trickling in from Europe on Thursday — released an audiotape it said showed rally leader Nino Burjanadze plotting a civil war.
The tape began with a man identified as Burjanadze’s son Anzor telling his mother that “if you assume responsibility, it would even be worthwile to launch a civil war” in which up to 500 people died.
The woman is then heard replying: “Yes, you are right.”
The opposition leader told AFP that the voice on the tape was hers but “taken out of context”.
“We did not do anything to hurt the country,” Burjanadze said.
Russia immediately rose to the opposition leader’s defence and said “it was becoming increasingly apparent that the regime’s claims cannot be trusted.
“These events must be seriously investigated at the international level,” said Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
And the European Commission called Saakashvili’s decision to use force against street protests for the second time in four years “very regrettable”.
“We understand a need to maintain law and order, but as we have already told the Georgian government we consider that needs to be done in a proportionate way,” Commission spokeswoman Natasha Butler said in Brussels.
Baton-wielding riot police also used tear gas to disperse a similar but larger series of rallies in November 2007 that Saakashvili had also linked to Russia at the time.
Yet the US ambassador appeared more sympathetic of Saakashvili’s position in a statement issued after the unrest.
“It is also important to remember that there were clearly a number of people included in that protest who were not interested in peacefully protesting, but were looking to spark a violent confrontation,” US ambassador John Bass said.
“The government took an important step in offering protesters an alternative place to protest today that would have allowed this parade to go forward.”
Some analysts interpreted the US embassy’s comments as a sign of unflinching support for Saakashvili from Washington.
“Georgia’s partners will only reinforce their support for Saakashvili since they can see how many threats Georgia and its leader still face,” said Alex Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.