- Georgia - Mikheil Saakashvili - NATO - Russia
AFP - Opposition protesters clashed with police in the Georgian capital Wednesday as political tensions mounted in the ex-Soviet republic.
Officials said riot police used truncheons to repel protesters trying to climb a fence into a main police building. The opposition said police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators, which officials denied.
But deputy interior minister Eka Zguladze said 22 protesters, six police and a journalist had been injured.
The disturbances came only one day after an attempted military mutiny against President Mikheil Saakashvili which the government has blamed on Russia.
"The police were defending the building from inside the fence. This was not a crackdown," Zguladze said in televised remarks.
She said all of the injuries were minor, but an opposition leader, Eka Beselia, said police had used "excessive force" to disperse a peaceful demonstration.
"When protesters approached the building the police started firing rubber bullets," she told AFP. "This is a direct violation of the law and the constitution."
Interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili insisted that "no rubber bullets have been used whatsoever." Police had acted "with the utmost restraint," he added.
Utiashvili said protesters had moved from outside the police building late Wednesday to rally in front of Georgia's parliament.
After midnight several thousand protesters were rallying outside parliament, which has been the focal point for nearly a month of anti-government demonstrations.
Georgian television earlier showed riot police using batons to repel protesters trying to climb over a fence surrounding the police building.
Opposition supporters threw sticks and rocks at the police. Some protesters also hit back at police with sticks.
The footage showed several protesters with what appeared to be head wounds.
"There was an attempt by some of the demonstrators to get into the building," Utiashvili said. "Police prevented them from entering the building and there was a small scuffle."
He denied reports that opposition leaders had been detained and said noone among the protesters had been arrested.
Utiashvili said the protesters, who appeared to number several hundred in the television footage, had gone to the police building to demand the release of three opposition activists reportedly held inside.
The three were detained on Tuesday for having allegedly attacking a Georgian Public Television reporter.
A prominent opposition activist, Giorgi Gachechiladze, was shown in television footage warning that protesters would storm the building. "Release them or we will force our way in!" he was shown shouting outside the fence.
Opposition supporters have staged rallies since April 9 to demand Saakashvili's resignation.
The protests have been the biggest against Saakashvili's rule since a war with Russia in August, but the number of participants has steadily dwindled after peaking at 60,000 when protests started.
Protesters have set up dozens of mock jails outside some government buildings and blocked central streets.
Opponents accuse Saakashvili of having mishandled the five-day war with Russia and of having become increasingly autocratic since coming to power after the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
Tensions have increased in recent days but officials have vowed there would be no repeat of events in November 2007 when riot police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters.
On Tuesday Georgia said it had peacefully put down a mutiny at a military base outside Tbilisi aimed at disrupting NATO exercises which started Wednesday.
Georgia initially accused Russia of backing an armed coup but later backed away from claims of Russian involvement.
The controversial military exercises started amid heightened tensions with Moscow over its expulsion of two Canadian diplomats working for NATO.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Georgia's accusation in comments to Euronews Wednesday.
"I think this is yet another provocation and am convinced that it is not accidental that this provocation has been contrived on the eve of the NATO war games beginning on the Georgian territory on May 6 despite all our admonitions," he said, the Interfax news agency reported.