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Criticism Mounting Over Georgia's State Of Emergency

Soldiers near the parliament bulding in central Tbilisi (AFP) November 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tbilisi woke up today under a state of emergency following the violent crackdown of antigovernment protests.

Many people stayed home as schools and universities shut down until November 12. The capital, Tbilisi, was eerily quiet and there was a heavy police presence in the partially cordoned-off city center.

President Mikheil Saakashvili called a state of emergency on November 7 after riot police forcibly dispersed an opposition rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, truncheons, and, in some instances, bare fists. The events have drawn international calls for restraint and some harsh words from Moscow.

The protesters had gathered outside parliament every day since November 2 -- when as many as 70,000 rallied -- to call for the resignation of Saakashvili and early elections.

Georgia's Health Ministry said more than 500 people had sought medical assistance after the clashes.

Authorities, claiming there had been a coup attempt, also banned all news broadcasts except by the state-funded Georgian Public Television. RFE/RL's broadcasts in Georgia are among those affected by the ban.

At a news briefing in Tbilisi on November 7, Georgian Economy Minister Georgy Arveladze said that the restrictions would affect radio and television broadcasters, but not print. "Restrictions will be imposed on free gathering and transmissions of news on radio and television," Arveladze said.

The announcement came just hours after riot police stormed a leading opposition television channel, Imedi TV, and shut it down in mid-broadcast.

Under the Georgian Constitution, the state of emergency enters into force immediately but must be approved by parliament within two days.

Criticism From Abroad

The crackdown has caused outrage both in Georgia and beyond. Human Rights Watch denounced a "complete abuse of the use of force" and said the government had no right to "restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis."

The weeklong protests were the largest civil demonstration since the Rose Revolution that peacefully swept the pro-Western Saakashvili to power in 2003.

Foreign leaders stopped short of openly condemning the emergency, but strongly urged restraint.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe called on all sides to refrain from violence and engage in a "constructive dialogue."

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, stressed that political differences should be resolved "within democratic institutions." A spokesperson for Solana said the European Union plans to send on November 9 its special representative to the South Caucasus region, Peter Semneby, to consult on the situation in Tbilisi.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels also reports that concerns over the summary crackdown on media freedom is likely to lead any EU statement on the events in Georgia.

Some of the harshest condemnations came from Russia, which Saakashvili squarely blamed for the turmoil. In his 30-minute televised address on November 7, Saakashvili accused Moscow of fomenting the protests and seeking to topple his government by the end of the year. Georgian authorities later announced the expulsion of three Russian diplomats.

Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed Saakashvili's claims as an "irresponsible provocation." State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov today also strongly rejected the accusation.

"As for the Georgian authorities and their policy of accusing Russia of [being involved in] everything -- [this policy] has been going on for some years," Gryzlov said. "I think this is all done on the orders of the United States' special services,"

The war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi marks a new low in already souring relations. Russian and Georgian officials have sparred repeatedly over Tbilisi's efforts to forge close ties with the West and restore control over two separatist regions backed by Russia.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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