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7 May, 2009 15:25

Dozens injured as protesters clash with police in Georgia

Georgia’s opposition members, who demand the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili, have given him three days to discuss early elections with them.

Otherwise, they will go ahead with their plans to block the country’s highways.

A statement issued by the opposition reads that “we believe that in the current crisis situation, the only possible solution is Mikhail Saakashvili’s peaceful resignation, and calling for early presidential and parliamentary elections. We are ready to meet with Saakashvili in public to discuss ways of leading the country out of the crisis.”

They made the statement at a rally outside the parliament building, in the capital of Tbilisi, after Wednesday's clashes with the police that left 60 people injured.

The figure was announced by the opposition, which claimed that several of their leaders are among the injured.

According to the Georgian Interior ministry, however, the number of injured consisted of 29 people, which included 6 policemen, 22 protestors and one journalist.

10,000 people gathered at Thursday’s rally despite the bad weather.

As a result, the police eventually freed opposition protestors detained on May 5, as demanded by the protesters who staged another rally on Wednesday evening near the Georgian Interior Ministry’s main headquarters in Tbilisi. The protests then deteriorated into clashes with the police.

These are only the latest in an array of protests in Georgia in recent weeks, which saw tens of thousands taking to the streets to call on President Saakashvili to resign.

Peaceful rally turned violent

Violence broke out earlier on Wednesday evening during a rally held at the country’s Police Headquarters.

The situation began to spin out of control when a well-known Georgian singer, Georgy Gachechiladze (a.k.a. Utsnobi), the brother of former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, attempted to climb over the police headquarter’s fence. The singer was said to have been detained, along with several activists. Police officers who were in the yard at that moment – all in civilian clothes – tried to prevent Gachechiladze from entering the compound.

“The police behaved very aggressively. When the clashes broke out, they started throwing various objects at us. The only thing I remember was when I turned around and got hit with a bullet on my forehead,” wounded opposition member Giya Misiashvili recalled.

His words were confirmed by other witness accounts.

According to various media, there were many other wounded protesters. One of Nino Burdzhanadze’s party members, Shalva Ogbaidze, is also said to have been wounded.

“You can see that some people are injured. It is very strange that three of my bodyguards have received head injuries. My son was also hit in the cheek. It can only mean that I was a target,” Burdzhanadze said in a TV interview at the site.

Ria Novosti reports Levan Gachechiladze also received a head wound during the clash, allegedly after being struck by a rubber bullet. Georgian TV channels are broadcasting footage showing him with blood on his face. However, other reports claim he refused to get treatment, as did his brother Georgy, despite broken ribs.

Reports allege that special police forces at Police Headquarters  fired rubber bullets into opposition protesters on the other side of the fence. Participants at the rally, in turn, zere said to have used sticks against the police.

Protesters broke the law – Georgian police

Officials at Georgia’s Interior Ministry say protesters broke the law during the rally.

“It’s an outrageous act of breaking the law against the police,” said Yekaterina Zguladze, Georgia’s Deputy Interior Minister. “The police officers remained calm and only guarded the perimeter of the Police Headquarters building. There has been no clearing away of the protesters, no one was detained,” she told Rustavi TV channel.

The ministry stated that its reaction to the opposition actions was “proportional to the threat."

Georgia’s President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has said the violent protests in Tbilisi will not make him postpone his visit to Prague for Thursday’s Eastern Partnership summit.

The government is responsible – human right activists

Following the clashes, Georgia's human rights ombudsman urged the Interior Minister to step down.

Aslan Abashidze – a Georgian and a professor of international law – says authorities should avoid using violence against the opposition.

“The government is responsible for everything, and it has to know that in the complicated state of affairs we have today, the steps it takes may aggravate the situation and bring about a catastrophic situation for Georgians. With such behavior, we can't be content with the government’s actions,” Abashidze said.

EU reaction

The European Union expects an investigation of Wednesday’s events, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, informed Interfax.

“We can say that we do not know about all the events. We want an investigation. Before that, we can’t say who’s behind it,”
she said.