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Police Beat Protesters In Georgian Capital

Georgian police battle opposition protesters in Tbilisi.
Georgian police battle opposition protesters in Tbilisi.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Masked police beat dozens of opposition protesters in the Georgian capital in the latest flare-up during a weeks-long street campaign against President Mikheil Saakashvili, witnesses said.

Dozens of black-clad police officers armed with truncheons confronted a protest of about 50 people at Tbilisi's main police station demanding the release of six opposition activists detained since June 12, a Reuters photographer said.

He said several protesters and one photographer were severely beaten. Some protesters were detained, and police seized cameras from journalists.

Tensions are running high in the former Soviet republic, after more than two months of opposition protests and roadblocks demanding Saakashvili quit over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.

The volatile South Caucasus country sits at the heart of a region key for oil and natural-gas transit to the West.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," protest leader and former Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze said of the violence. "We demand a response from our Western partners, to give their assessment of the situation."

Crackdown

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that protesters were hampering traffic and resisted police efforts "to unblock the entrance to the police station and restore traffic movement."

Pro-opposition television stations Maestro and Kavkasia said they would temporarily halt broadcasting in protest.

Turnout at the demonstrations has waned, but dozens of mock prison cells erected around parliament continue to block traffic through central Tbilisi.

The Georgian government has been wary of repeating a 2007 crackdown against the last mass demonstrations against Saakashvili, when police firing tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed crowds outside parliament.

But frustrations frequently spill over into violence.

On June 12, protesters threw rocks and bottles at a car carrying parliament speaker David Bakradze and on June 15 dozens of men in civilian clothes with knives and sticks broke up several mock prison cells behind parliament.

The United States and European Union have urged the government and opposition to relaunch dialogue.

The opposition accuses 41-year-old Saakashvili of monopolizing power since the 2003 Rose Revolution that propelled him to the presidency.

He has faced renewed pressure since last August, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.

But analysts question whether the opposition has the unity or the numbers to unseat him.

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