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Georgia Releases Opposition Activists After Clashes

The scene amid the clashes between opposition supporters and riot police in the Georgian capital on May 6.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgian authorities have released three opposition activists whose detention sparked violent late-night clashes between police and protesters demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The violence, in which 22 protesters and six police were wounded, came the day after a brief military uprising by a tank battalion. The events cast a shadow over the start of month-long NATO military exercises in the former Soviet republic that have angered neighboring Russia.

The head of the influential Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, warned overnight that the situation was "in danger of exploding." He called for the activists' release to calm the situation and told the opposition not to step outside the law.

The prosecutor-general said in a statement the prisoners had been released in response to the patriarch's request.

Tensions are running high in the country of 4.5 million people. The opposition has been protesting and blocking streets in the capital since April 9, demanding Saakashvili resign over his record on democracy and last year's war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The violence stoked fears of wider antigovernment unrest following a brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base near Tbilisi on May 5 when authorities said battalion commanders had refused orders and were plotting a wider rebellion.

The Georgian government accused Moscow of being behind a coup plot but Moscow dismissed that charge, saying Saakashvili was trying to blame an external foe for his domestic problems.

On May 7, Russia said a planned second meeting between it, Georgia, the European Union, and South Ossetia had been broken off "because of Georgia."

The May 6 violence erupted when protesters gathered outside a police base where the opposition activists were being held on charges of beating a public broadcaster journalist.

The opposition accused police of firing rubber bullets, which the authorities denied. Several opposition leaders were among the wounded, mainly with cuts to the head.

Bearded priests tried to calm the protesters and masked riot police, who hurled insults at each other through a dividing fence. Television footage showed blood streaming from the heads of several protesters.

Russia has strongly opposed NATO's decision to hold monthlong military exercises in Georgia, saying this amounts to "muscle-flexing" by the Western military alliance in an area it considers part of its traditional sphere of influence.

Moscow's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said on May 5 that NATO would be better off holding its exercises "in a madhouse" than in a country where troops were rioting against the president.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Tbilisi on May 6 of "yet another provocation" with its allegations of Russian-inspired coup plots.

"I am absolutely certain it was not accidental that this provocation was conceived ahead of the NATO exercise in Georgia on May 6, disregarding all our warnings," Lavrov said in comments published by the Interfax news agency.