MUKHROVANI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia said it put down a mutiny at a military base on Tuesday and accused Moscow of trying to foment a wider rebellion on the eve of NATO war games in the former Soviet republic.
Russia, which fought a war with neighboring Georgia last year, denied involvement and said President Mikheil Saakashvili was trying to shift the blame for weeks of opposition protests demanding he resign.
Around 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the Mukhrovani tank base 19 km (12 miles) from Tbilisi about three hours after news broke of a military uprising. Saakashvili later followed them, and authorities said the rebellion was over.
It was not clear how many of the 500 soldiers at the base were involved, but their commander was arrested along with seven other military police officers. Three others were on the run, said police, who also detained 13 civilians.
Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said the rebellion was aimed at disrupting month-long NATO exercises beginning on Wednesday at a former Russian air force base several kilometers from Mukhrovani.
Russia has described the planned exercises as “muscle-flexing.”
“What happened today is the end of that dark era when certain forces try to undermine Georgian statehood,” Sikharulidze said.
Earlier, Russia’s Interfax news agency said Mukhrovani base commander Mamuka Gorgishvili had made a statement criticizing the government. He pledged not to use force in the stand-off on the streets between opposition supporters and the authorities.
“One cannot look calmly at the process of the country falling apart, at the ongoing confrontation. But our tank unit will not resort to any aggressive actions,” the agency quoted Gorgishvili as saying.
After his arrest, police released a video of Gorgishvili telling police another officer had offered him money to send tanks to Tbilisi, saying “the opposition is waiting.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Pentagon said the mutiny appeared to be “a fairly isolated incident at this point.”
Saakashvili accused the plotters of links to Moscow and demanded Russia “refrain from provocations.”
Georgia’s opposition accused the government of staging “a show” to deflect attention from their protests over his record on democracy and last year’s war.
Russia said Saakashvili’s accusations were “insane.”
“Instead of dialogue inside the country, the Georgian leadership is trying to accuse Russia of totally insane things,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told reporters.
Military experts in Tbilisi suggested the rebellion could be linked with plans to use troops to end opposition road blocks paralyzing Tbilisi, with some officers refusing to participate.
“This chimes with what we are hearing from military sources,” a senior Western diplomat said.
Georgia lost a brief war against neighboring Russia last August when Russia crushed in days a Georgian assault on the rebel pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia. Conflict over South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, destabilized Georgia in the early 1990s.
The August war slammed the brakes on Georgia’s bid for membership of NATO, which the Kremlin fiercely opposes as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. It has also increased pressure on Saakashvili.
Ties between Russia and NATO came under new strain on Tuesday when Moscow said it would order out two Canadian NATO envoys on Wednesday in response to the alliance’s expulsion last week of two Brussels-based Russian diplomats, Interfax reported, quoting an unnamed Foreign Ministry official.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dropped plans to attend a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council this month in protest at the expulsion of Russians. NATO said it regretted Moscow’s decision and hoped a new date would be agreed.
Fitch ratings agency said it would likely cut Georgia’s B+ debt rating if political instability continued.
Russia’s NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin said NATO would be better off holding its exercises in a “madhouse,” since “Georgia’s military cannot properly receive their colleagues because they are rioting against their own president.”
The NATO exercises involving some 1,000 soldiers from member states and partner nations are intended as a gesture of solidarity for Georgia, which sits at the heart of a region crucial for energy transit from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
They are due to take place around 70 km (44 miles) from the nearest Russian troop positions in breakaway South Ossetia.
The rebel region’s leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax it had assembled several military units at its border with Georgia following Tuesday’s mutiny and had put the region on alert.
Russian ally Armenia said on Tuesday it had decided against participating, citing “the current situation.” Kazakhstan and Serbia have also pulled out.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Matt Robinson in Tbilisi, Oleg Shchedrov, Dmitry Solovyov and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow. Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Sophie Hares