Authorities in Georgia have arrested members of a leading opposition party for illegally purchasing automatic assault weapons, sparking fears of renewed instability as the country braces for antigovernment protests next month.
Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament, called the arrests part of a "campaign of terror" against her party.
The Interior Ministry said 10 people had been arrested on charges of purchasing automatic weapons. Among those arrested were members of Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia party.
Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that investigators were interested in finding out why the suspects were specifically trying to buy a shortened version of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, which is relatively easy to conceal.
"It is illegal to possess an automatic weapon. This is very disturbing," Utiashvili said. "They were especially interested in the AKS-U assault weapon, the short version. The investigation will go in this direction. We know the weapons were purchased. Now our task is to find out what they were going to be used for."
Seven people were arrested in Tbilisi and at least one in Batumi. Among the detained were a driver for Burjanadze's husband, several friends of her son, and the leader of her party's branch in the Ajara region.
The arrests came as the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party prepared to participate in massive opposition street demonstrations demanding President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation on April 9. They also came weeks after Saakashvili publicly alleged that Russia was financing the opposition in Georgia in an effort to overthrow his pro-Western government.
Utiashvili said the authorities are not yet drawing any conclusions that those detained were planning to participate in an armed uprising.
"Today all we can prove is that these people were buying weapons," Utiashvili said. "We cannot yet say what these weapons were meant to be used for. But it is obvious that when somebody buys a Kalashnikov -- a weapon you can't officially register -- it was not meant to be something you just want to take home to have in your apartment."
'Better To Use In The City'
He dismissed any political motive for the arrests, saying the authorities began investigating illegal arms markets after a series of attacks on police stations in Tbilisi and other cities in recent weeks.
Georgian television showed seven separate secretly filmed incidents in which unidentified men attempted to purchase weapons. In one, a man agrees to buy three Russian-made Stechkin automatic pistols for $1,200. An arms dealer tells him that the Stechkin is "better for working purposes." Another chimes in and says the AKS-U shortened assault rifle "is better to use in the city."
The names of the party members arrested have not yet been released, nor have the number of weapons allegedly purchased.
Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi on March 23, after the footage was aired, Burjanadze cast doubt on its authenticity.
"Speaking not as a politician, but as a lawyer, I can say that no court would consider what we have seen on television as sufficient evidence to prove the allegations that have been raised. We know all too well how such video footage can be prepared," Burjanadze said.
Burjanadze's husband, Badri Bitsadze, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that he was warned by Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili that he would be arrested and advised him to leave the country.
"I don't intend to go anywhere. I'm just waiting for when they will detain me," Bitsadze said.
Another opposition figure, Eka Beselia of the For A United Georgia party, also dismissed the videos, saying "people have no trust in this kind of material."
Georgia's most popular opposition figure, Irakli Alasania, the former UN ambassador and leader of the Alliance For Georgia, has yet to comment on the arrests.
Burjanadze and Saakashvili were close allies in the pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003. She supported his controversial decision to use tear gas and water cannons to break up huge antigovernment demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2007. Burjanadze broke with the president prior to parliamentary elections in May 2008 and has since criticized him persistently for backsliding on democratic principles.
Pressure on Saakashvili has increased since August when the Russian military crushed an attempt by Georgia to retake the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia by force.
On March 20, Gela Bezhuashvili told parliament that Russia was seeking "to remove the Georgian authorities through internal disorder and destabilization."
Georgia is planning to mark the 20th anniversary of Soviet forces crushing a pro-democracy demonstration in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989. Opposition groups are planning to use the occasion to stage antigovernment protests demanding Saakashvili's resignation.