Two killed in Georgia rally crackdown
Two people were killed and dozens injured Thursday when Georgian police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a rally against President Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-Western government.
The dramatic night-time crackdown ended five days of anti-government rallies and came ahead of Thursday's showpiece military parade to mark Georgia's independence from Russia.
Tension remains high between Tbilisi and Moscow following a 2008 war and footage of the helmet-clad Georgian policemen swinging batons against unarmed civilians led Russia's state television news.
Saakashvili rose to power on a wave of democratic optimism during the 2003 Rose Revolution and he firmly told the nation Thursday that the people rising against him were working on behalf of the "occupation" forces of the Kremlin.
"These provocations are being prepared from outside the country," Saakashvili said before overseeing the annual military parade.
"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 the 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.
Saakashvili has fostered close ties with the United States but remains condemned by Russia as an illegitimate leader who uses violence against those who favour pro-Moscow policies.
The local opposition against him is active but splintered and the government released an audiotape Thursday it said recorded rally leader Nino Burjanadze admitting that her nationwide base of support was small.
"Thirty-five percent have a negative view (of the opposition) and 15 percent directly support it," she is alleged to have said.
The opposition leader told AFP that the voice on the tape was hers but "taken out of context".
The interior ministry said 90 people had been taken into custody and would be held for up to two months awaiting trial on charges of "planning to forcefully overthrow the government."
Saakashvili said the two people who died -- identified as a policeman and a former officer -- were hit by "the motorcade of fleeing (opposition) leaders."
Using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, riot squads moved in just after midnight to disperse around 300 activists armed with sticks.
The rallies had begun over the weekend and protesters had intended to thwart the Independence Day parade.
"In total, 37 people were hospitalised, 28 protesters and nine policemen," interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP.
Rights groups accused the police of using excessive force.
"Even if the decision to disperse the demonstration had been legitimate, video footage disseminated through various media sources clearly shows the use of excessive force by police," Transparency International and Young Lawyers Association of Georgia said in a joint statement.
Western diplomats in Tbilisi had said on Wednesday they supported the right to peaceful protest but expressed fears about potential confrontations.
"I'm concerned by indications that there are elements within those groups protesting who appear to be more interested in trying to force a violent confrontation than in peacefully protesting," US ambassador John Bass said.
"It must end tonight or tomorrow morning. They have a right to rally, but not to hamper an official parade," French ambassador Eric Fournier told AFP.
Saakashvili has remained the country's most powerful figure despite the disastrous 2008 war and many believe he could continue to dominate Georgian politics after his term ends in 2013.
© 2011 AFP