Georgian riot police broke up five days of demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili today (26 May) and two people were killed by cars speeding away from the clashes.
Thousands of riot police used teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse protesters outside parliament in torrential rain just after midnight last night to clear the way for the former Soviet republic's independence celebrations.
At least 37 people were wounded. Some opposition protesters were beaten by police with batons and Reuters photographers saw people smeared in blood lying restrained on the tarmac. Some protesters wielded metal poles and sticks.
Opponents accuse the pro-Western Saakashvili of monopolising power since the 2003 Rose Revolution that ousted the post-Soviet old guard in the Caucasus state, where pipelines carry oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.
Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said one policeman and a protester were killed after being hit by vehicles in a convoy of cars driving away from the protest. He said one car was carrying opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, a charge she denied.
"Burjanadze and her husband were rushing to leave the scene in a convoy of five jeeps. One of the vehicles from their convoy hit a policemen who later died in hospital," Utiashvili said.
"Unfortunately, one of the protesters died and according to our information he was also a victim of that convoy."
The ministry released footage showing a convoy of six off-road vehicles driving at high speed away from the main street in the capital Tbilisi. The last two cars in the convoy hit a policeman standing on the road.
Burjanadze, a former ally of Saakashvili who has vowed to lead a peaceful revolution against him, said the cars did not belong to her. She called for an investigation and said she would continue to press for Saakashvili to quit.
But political analysts said that as long as the opposition was fragmented, there was little threat to the 43-year-old leader, who is due to step down at the end of his term in 2013.
'Crime against humanity'
Opponents accuse him of using strong ties with the United States and the European Union to deflect attention from human rights abuses in Georgia.
About 5,000 people protested and several hundred refused to heed calls from the authorities to make way for an Independence Day military parade which Saakashvili is due to attend.
"It was a crime against humanity," said Burjanadze, a former parliament speaker and one of the leaders of the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power.
"How can the Georgian president oversee the parade after these events, when he blocked all the roads and did not enable protesters to leave peacefully?" she told reporters.
Weakened after a five-day war with Russia in 2008, Saakashvili has since reasserted control and opinion polls show he has support of between 40 and 55% of the population.
The US-educated lawyer has said he will not "cling to power" after 2013, but opponents say he is planning to become prime minister to try to remain Georgia's paramount leader.
Some of the most liberal reforms in the former Soviet Union have attracted investment and made Georgia the darling of international financial organisations, but a police crackdown on opposition demonstrators in 2007 fuelled Western concern over his commitment to democracy and free media.
The United States and Europe criticised Russia and voiced support for Georgia after the war in 2008, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia after months of Russian baiting and rising tensions, but it also dented Saakashvili's standing with the West.
EURACTIV with Reuters
Shota Utiashvili, a senior official in the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, said in a press statement that the protests were organised by "radical elements" and that they "intended to illegally occupy the area that will be used on May 26 for the official celebrations of Georgia's Independence Day".
Utiashvili underscored that the government held video which "showed demonstrators in the act of planning to violently resist the police and use 'Molotov cocktails' in order to set fire to police vehicles".
The statement goes on to say the police used "legitimate force" to clear the protestors and they were "compelled to use water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas to disperse groups of violent protestors".
It adds that the government "remains fully committed to allowing freedom of assembly and expression within the boundaries of the law".
Speaking to reporters, Natasha Butler, spokesperson for Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle, regretted the violence saying "We understand the need to maintain law and order, but as we have already told the Georgian government, we consider that this needs to be done in a proportionate way."
"The EU therefore urges the Georgian government to investigate all allegations regarding an excessive use of violence and harassment by the police. We call both on the opposition and the government authorities not to use violence as a means to political ends," she added.
Butler stressed the importance of electoral reform in addressing public demands, saying "we call upon representatives of all political parties to engage in a constructive manner to solve issues inside the current political debate. This is of particular relevance with regard to the reform of the electoral code and other measures to establish a level playing field before the parliamentary elections next year."
The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, was brought to power during the "Rose Revolution" protests in that country in November 2003.
Saakashvili has traditionally had good relations with the United States and many Europeans countries, which supported the democratic transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Georgia and Russia fought a brief war in August 2008 over the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. France, which then held the EU's rotating presidency, was actively involved in brokering a peace deal.
- AFP:Georgia opposition protests enter fifth day
- Deutsche Welle: Blutige Zusammenstöße bei Demonstration in Georgien
- RTBF:Géorgie : manifestations contre le président, des morts
- Wall Street Journal:Two Die as Police Break Up Georgia Protest