TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has declared a state of emergency after sending in riot police to battle protesters demanding his resignation.
Saakashvili, facing the worst crisis since he came to power on the back of street protests in 2003, has blamed Russia for stirring up strife in the former Soviet republic which has forged close ties with Washington under his rule.
Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said authorities had prevented a coup. Economic Development Minister Georgy Arveladze said all independent television news programs would be stopped during a 15-day state of emergency across Georgia.
Riot police used tear gas and water cannon on demonstrators in Tbilisi on Wednesday. Special forces troops wielding automatic weapons stormed the country’s main opposition television channel, Imedi, which was then taken off air.
Georgia expelled three Russian diplomats and recalled its ambassador from Moscow. Saakashvili said he had evidence that Russian intelligence was behind the disorder.
Relations between Georgia and Russia were already at all-time lows. Saakashvili’s desire to join NATO and his drive to regain sovereignty over two breakaway pro-Russian provinces have angered Moscow, which last year cut all transport links.
“We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty geo-political escapades by other countries,” Saakashvili told the nation in a television broadcast. “Our democracy needs the firm hand of the authorities.”
Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003 when protests drove Eduard Shevardnadze from office, wants to take his small Caucasus nation into NATO and the European Union.
The Kremlin called Saakashvili’s accusations “anti-Russian hysterics” and Moscow said it would make “an adequate response,” signaling possible tit-for-tat expulsions.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the government and opposition to avoid actions that could lead to more violence and urged dialogue to resolve differences.
The opposition says Saakashvili has grabbed too much power and should step down after calling early elections.
“The authorities have used weapons against peaceful demonstrators and therefore the authorities will get what they deserve from the people,” said opposition leader Kakha Kukava.
Georgian hospitals took in 508 patients in Tbilisi, the Health Ministry said, with nearly 100 remaining overnight with injuries. Twenty-four police officers were among the wounded.
Saakashvili said he had employed means used in many democratic and civilized countries. Prime Minister Nogaideli said restrictions will be imposed on demonstrations and media will be restricted from calling for protests and violence.
Special forces ordered journalists and employees onto the ground at gunpoint at the Imedi television channel, which is controlled by billionaire tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. He said the government was no different to former communist rulers.
The European Union said it was sending its special envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby to Georgia to meet “all the relevant parties.” Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, condemned the government crackdown as “completely unacceptable.”