Police clash with protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia. (David Mdzinarishvi / Reuters )
Reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Moscow — Georgian police early Thursday violently dispersed an antigovernment rally in Tbilisi, crushing protesters' attempts to prevent a military parade marking the country's 20 years of independence since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
At least two people were killed and dozens injured or arrested in the capital's downtown as police broke up a rally also calling for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation. The two people, including a police officer, apparently were struck by cars trying to escape the chaos along Rustaveli Avenue in front of the parliament building.
Demonstrators were fleeing in all directions as police chased and beat them with truncheons, witnesses said. Many of those on the ground were kicked by officers and dragged to police stations, where the beatings continued. Witnesses said police also used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
"It was a nightmare," said Goderdzi Kutalia, a 43-year-old economist who was among the protesters. "The police were acting with extreme cruelty as they surrounded and attacked us and they didn't leave us a chance to exit."
Kutalia said he saw police firing at people already lying on the ground.
Nino Khidasheli, a nurse who was participating in the demonstration, said she was hit on the head with a club even as she stood with her hands raised above her head.
"What really made me very angry was the police screaming obscenities at me, a woman!" Khidasheli, 32, said. "They acted like cruel animals."
About 90 people were detained and face charges of inciting and participating in mass disturbances, police officials said.
Saakashvili dismissed the protest as an attempt to thwart the independence celebration and trigger mass disturbances according to "a scenario written outside Georgia." The president, who came to power in 2004 after the so-called Rose Revolution, has since parted ways with most of his allies, who accuse him of being authoritarian.
"The developments of the recent days have nothing to do with freedom of speech," Saakashvili told troops gathered for the anniversary event after the avenue had been cleared of any traces of the overnight violence. "These people, these political leaders with their small groups wanted to raise a hand on the Georgian democracy.... Instead of wanting freedom of speech, they in fact want violence."
But several analysts and political leaders said officials were obligated to do their best to find a peaceful solution to the public disobedience. Demonstrations had gone on for several days before the violence broke out.
The police response to the rally "was a flagrant violation of human rights," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Although opposition leaders refused to move the demonstration to a different location, authorities were still responsible for finding a nonviolent way out of the situation, said Irakli Menagharishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Center for Strategic Studies.
Nino Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally and former parliament speaker and now head of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia, called the violence "a crime against mankind."
"How can the Georgian president review the parade after blocking all the roads to prevent the demonstrators from leaving peacefully," she told the opposition Maestro television network. The police "were ready to kill the people.... This regime will not last long."
The Russian government, itself known for forcefully dispersing demonstrations in Moscow, also criticized Saakashvili's regime and Georgia's excessive use of force.
"His actions against the opposition in violation of accepted democratic norms should be investigated in a most serious way on an international level," said Alexander Lukashevich, spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Special correspondent Jinjikhashvili reported from Tbilisi and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.