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Georgian Opposition Decries Excessive Force By Police After Clash

Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze claimed to hold up a rubber bullet fired by the police at demonstrators.
(RFE/RL) -- Georgia's opposition has complained of the authorities using excessive force after a violent clash between opposition activists and riot police in Tbilisi, which has added an extra degree of tension to Georgia's fraught political situation.

Around 30 people, most of them protesters, were injured on May 6, when opposition supporters tried to force their way into one of the capital's main police buildings to retrieve some detained colleagues, who have since been released.

The disturbance in the center of the capital must be reckoned as an embarrassment for President Mikheil Saakashvili. It came the same day as hundreds of soldiers from NATO members were arriving in Georgia to participate in monthlong exercises that will display Western support for Saakashvili in his war of words with Russia.

Another embarrassment came just a day earlier, when some 500 Georgian soldiers at a tank unit based at Mukhrovani declared a mutiny, saying they would no longer take orders. That mutiny ended peacefully, but taken along with the Tbilisi clash increases an impression of a government under considerable pressure.

The opposition had been waging a peaceful campaign demanding the resignation of Saakashvili, whom they blame for worsening the country's political and economic crisis.

'Excessive Force'

But the May 6 protests turned violent, with the opposition claiming that the police used excessive force against the demonstrators, including firing rubber bullets and using truncheons.

Speaking to a rally in Tbilisi on May 7, opposition leader Nino Burjanadze said that demonstrators have "injuries in the area of eyes, forehead, and temple." She said that while the police denied using rubber bullets, she held one in her hand "for the whole world to see."

Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze sought to counter Burjanadze's assertion by saying police had used a minimum of force to control the situation.

Speaking on Georgian television, Zguladze referred to reports that demonstrators had used sticks and stones against police, as they tried to climb a fence into the police compound.

"I want to stress that attacks on police, an attempt to hit police, is a very serious offense and it will not be allowed," Zguladze said.

"Will the police use force? Police will use proportional force, exactly as much force as will be necessary to stop a specific attack," she added. "This will be the minimum possible force, because we are all aware -- at least, [the government is] aware -- how important it is, and I do hope that rally participants understand it, too, though I started having doubts today."

Calls For Dialogue

On May 6, NATO renewed a call for the government and the opposition in Georgia to engage in dialogue, and to pass reforms ensuring freedom of assembly and the media, and for the government to avoid using violence against protesters.

Opposition leader Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, took up the same theme in remarks to journalists early on May 7 on the sidelines of the opposition rally in Tbilisi.

"We do need to stop the violence. All political parties, all representatives of the political forces, and the government have to come together at this point and try to solve this problem through the dialogue, through the meeting that may take place in the nearest future," Alasania said in English.

"I really hope that this will be the only way out, a negotiated solution that can be the basis of resolving this political crisis."

Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama is set to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office -- an unusual move, in that an invitation to that room is normally reserved for fellow heads of state and government.

Obama is perceived as trying to stabilize relations with Russia, which is incensed by the present NATO presence in Georgia, which Moscow considers its sphere of influence.

with news agency reports