TBILISI Masked police beat dozens of opposition protesters in the Georgian capital on Monday 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 Friday, a Reuters photographer said.
He said several protesters and a photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency were severely beaten. Senior opposition official Zurab Abashidze was admitted to hospital.
Police seized cameras from photographers and cameramen, including a Reuters photographer. The cameras were later returned but the Reuters photographer's images had been erased. Other photographers said their memory cards had been taken.
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 country of 4.5 million people sits on Russia's southern border, at the heart of a transit region for oil and gas 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."
Saakashvili said he was tolerating a state of "lawlessness" and accused his opponents of trying to provoke him.
"They think Saakashvili is hot-headed, they insult (parliament speaker David) Bakradze and (Prime Minister Nika) Gilauri, and they try to make us crush them," he told a televised meeting of the parliamentary majority.
Police firing tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed the last mass demonstrations against Saakashvili in 2007. Watched closely by the West, authorities are wary of taking a hard line again, but analysts question how long the stalemate can continue.
"CRIMINALS AND BANDITS"
Both sides have traded blame for a spate of violent incidents, vying for the sympathy of Georgia's Western allies.
The opposition said that statements by several Western embassies on Friday, in which they criticized opposition protesters for throwing rocks and bottles at Bakradze's official car, had encouraged the government to take a hard line.
"The statements made by the U.S., French and Czech ambassadors clearly gave impetus to the authorities to act as criminals and bandits today," opposition leader David Gamkrelidze said.
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." It said 39 protesters were detained.
Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze said police had acted inappropriately toward journalists. "It is our mistake. We admit it and apologize," she told a news conference.
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.
Earlier on Monday, men in civilian clothes armed with knives broke up mock prison cells behind parliament.
The opposition accuse 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.
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze, Matt Robinson and Niko Mchedlishvili; writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Millership)