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2 killed in Georgia rally crackdown

world Updated: May 26, 2011 14:35 IST

AFP
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Two people were killed and dozens injured on 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 Moscow.

Tension remains high between Tbilisi and Moscow following a war in 2008 and footage of the police action lead the day's state television news in Russia.

Saakashvili, who rose to power on a wave of democratic optimism during the 2003 Rose Revolution, appeared on national television Thursday afternoon to defend his forces and reaffirm his commitment to human rights.

"Every citizens has the right to freedom of speech and expression," Saakashvili said.

"But what has been happening in the past few days has had nothing to do with the postulates of freedom of speech."

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 intended Thursday 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.

Calling for Saakashvili to resign, thousands of protesters led by the former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze began round-the-clock protests on Saturday.

But their rallies failed to attract mass support and turnout remained low.

And underscoring bitter rifts in opposition ranks, several anti-government parties refused to send their supporters onto the streets.

Saakashvili's administration -- which deployed riot squads to crush demonstrations in 2007 at a time when Burjanadze was a leading official -- has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to the right to peaceful protest.

His supporters believe protest organisers were seeking to provoke police hoping that a violent crackdown would win them popular sympathy.

Western diplomats in Tbilisi 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.

Burjanadze, who has promised a "revolution", said there would be further demonstrations.

"We will not stop. We will do everything to get rid of this government which hates its people," she said.

The Georgian president dismissed the rallies as "masquerades" in a speech late Tuesday, hinting that opposition leaders were doing the work of his enemies in the Kremlin.

Despite defeat in the war with Russia in 2008 and the crackdown in 2007, Saakashvili has remained the country's most powerful figure and many believe he could continue to dominate Georgian politics after his term ends in 2013.