TBILISI (Reuters) - Violence flared between police and protesters in Georgia on Wednesday during a month-long opposition campaign to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili, building on fears of unrest after a failed military mutiny.
Police accused protesters of trying to storm their base, and television pictures showed police and demonstrators trading blows with batons and sticks across a metal gate dividing them.
Several hundred people converged on the building, where riot police took position in the grounds. The Interior Ministry said 22 protesters and six policemen were wounded. The opposition said several of its leaders were also treated in hospital.
The clash came a day after Georgia said it had put down a brief mutiny at a tank base outside Tbilisi and accused neighboring Russia of plotting a wider rebellion against Saakashvili nine months after war between the former Soviet neighbors.
The drama cast a shadow over the launch of NATO military exercises in Georgia on Wednesday, condemned by Russia as “muscle-flexing” on its southern border.
Georgia has been braced for unrest since the opposition began daily protests on April 9, blocking streets in downtown Tbilisi and demanding Saakashvili quit over his record on democracy and last year’s war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia.
The West has been watching closely for a possible repeat of a 2007 police crackdown against the last peaceful mass demonstrations against the 41-year-old president.
Protesters appeared to have converged on the police base to demand the release of three opposition activists detained over the beating a journalist on Tuesday.
Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze told Georgian radio that police had been attacked. “The police received an order to protect the perimeter,” she said, adding that they had not stepped outside the compound.
Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili denied opposition accusations that police had fired rubber bullets, and witnesses at the scene could not confirm the claim.
“We know that they were trying to enter the police compound and wanted to release their activists from the cells,” Utiashvili said.
The clashes coincided with the start of nearly a month of exercises by more than a dozen NATO members and partners.
Russia, infuriated by Georgia’s allegations that it is plotting a wider rebellion against Saakashvili, condemned the NATO war games as a threat to stability in the region.
Several of Russia’s post-Soviet allies decided not to take part in the “crisis response” exercise.
Russia’s ties with NATO plunged to a post-Cold War low after it crushed Georgia’s army in the five-day war in August, slamming the brakes on Georgia’s NATO membership bid.
At a meeting of the 28 NATO states and their Georgian counterpart in Brussels on Wednesday, NATO called for dialogue between Georgia’s government and opposition, for reforms to ensure freedom of media and assembly, and for the government to avoid violence against protests, a NATO spokeswoman said.
Writing by Matt Robinson and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Alison Williams