MOSCOW — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a 15-day state of emergency Wednesday after riot police armed with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets battled thousands of protesters who are demanding new elections.
Raising furious protests from opposition leaders who claimed the government had abandoned the ideals of the 2003 Rose Revolution, authorities also closed down two television stations and expelled three Russian diplomats. Saakashvili blames Moscow for the political unrest in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
"We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty geopolitical escapades by other countries," the president said in a televised address to the nation. "Our democracy needs a firm hand of the authorities."
He called on opposition parties not involved in purported Russian subterfuge to engage in dialogue.
"I have no doubt about your patriotism, and I have no doubt that we will always be able to find a common language for the sake of Georgia," he said.
The state of emergency -- to be presented to parliament for ratification within 48 hours -- bans street rallies and strikes, and places controls on independent television and radio news broadcasts for 15 days.
The measure is designed to end nearly a week of protests that have filled the Georgian capital's main thoroughfare with thousands of protesters demanding parliamentary elections in the spring.
"Everyone has the opportunity to express their protest in a democratic country and I, as a democrat, have always defended the right of people to protest," Saakashvili said. "But the authorities will never allow destabilization and chaos in Georgia."
More than 500 people were injured and several protesters were arrested Wednesday morning as authorities moved to clear Tbilisi's main thoroughfare. By midday, Rustaveli Avenue was shrouded in smoke; protesters, choking and bleeding, were running from advancing police officers.
Tear gas was fired at a church near the parliament as enraged priests attempted to shelter protesters inside.
"We are facing the government forces, who are now hunting for the people," David Usupashvili, head of the opposition Republican Party, said by telephone from the Georgian capital. "I don't know who will be in freedom, who will be in hospital, who will be arrested.
"It is more than clear that the government has lost any ability to talk with the opposition and the people," he said.
Police moved in to close a small Tbilisi television station, Kavkasia TV. They also closed Imedi TV, which is managed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and one of the leading disseminators of opposition news. Imedi TV is owned by Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has been funding Saakashvili's opponents, though there have been recent reports that he was handing control to News Corp.
The channel was broadcasting news of the day's turmoil as police entered the building.
"Here they are, coming into the studio," the anchor announced. "I hear shouts from the control room. I hope our employees won't be injured. Here are our guests."
The signal then stopped.
The state of emergency appears to place strict limits on the broadcast of news by non-government radio and television stations.
Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, came to power after tens of thousands of citizens occupied the streets in 2003 in a peaceful protest against the government of former President Eduard A. Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has since charted a course toward the West, aiming Georgia for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while engaging in increasing hostility with Russia.
Opposition parties are seeking to reverse a constitutional amendment adopted by the parliament postponing until October parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring.
"Frankly, we didn't expect Saakashvili to crack down on us the way he did. It is a big, big mistake he is going to regret pretty soon, if not already," Zviad Dzidziguri, leader of the Conservative Party, said in a telephone interview.
Witnesses said the crackdown began when the crowd assembled Wednesday became so large that it blocked traffic on the main thoroughfare.
"We started to move on the road. At this moment, policemen took out their truncheons and all of a sudden started beating people," said Giorgy Abashishvili, a representative of the Young Republican Institute, who had joined the protesters.
A nearby pharmacy started handing out face masks, one witness said.
"I was standing on the edge of the demonstration when they started shooting. They threw gas bullets in the church and the theatrical institute," said Ekaterine Zedginidze, 26. "I could not breathe. I live on this street and have two children. Why are they doing this?"
Film director Georgy Khaindrava, a major figure in the opposition, was among those briefly arrested. He said police also used rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters.
"The last time gas and bullets were used against a peaceful demonstration in Tbilisi was April 9, 1989, and the brutal attack then was carried out by Soviet troops," Khaindrava said. "After that, Georgia became a different country, and eventually gained its independence."
The crackdown on an anti-Soviet demonstration, now commemorated as an annual Day of National Unity, resulted in 20 deaths and scores of injuries.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and special correspondent Tiko Ninua in Tbilisi contributed to this report.