Police disperse protest in Tbilisi

May 25, 2011 - 4:57 PM

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Riot police with truncheons and water cannon forcibly dispersed protesters outside the parliament building, where they were aiming to block an Independence Day parade to push their demands that the president resign.

Demonstrations against President Mikhail Saakashvili began Saturday, but have attracted only a few thousand people at most. Protests leaders, hoping to assemble a massive and dramatic manifestation, had aimed to move from the parliament building to a nearby square through which the military parade was to pass later Thursday.

But their demonstration permit expired at midnight Wednesday and within minutes after time ran out, police moved in on the crowd of about 1,500 protesters, spraying water on them and letting off tear gas. Some witnesses said police also fired rubber bullets.

Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said 18 police were injured in the operation, one of them seriously. He said that authorities had offered the protesters alternate venues for a Thursday demonstration that would not block the parade, but that protest leaders refused.

One of the opposition leaders, former world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili, said dozens of demonstrators were arrested. But there were no immediate official figures. The protesters accuse Saakashvili of corruption and of backtracking on democracy.

Saakashvili came under severe criticism at home and abroad in 2007 after a violent police crackdown on protests, which damaged his image as a democratic reformer. Dissatisfaction with him rose further after Georgia's brief war with Russia in 2008, in which Russia advanced far into Georgian territory and Georgia fully lost control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions.

But weeks of protests in the spring of 2009 failed to force his resignation and the opposition, weakened by factional disputes, appears unable to galvanize people in numbers similar to the tens of thousands who came to the streets in the 2003 Rose Revolution that helped bring Saakashvili to power.