Georgia says policeman dies after protest clashes

Reuters News
Posted: May 25, 2011 8:53 PM
Georgia says policeman dies after protest clashes

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian riot police clashed with several hundred protesters demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili on Thursday, and the government said a policeman died after being hit by a vehicle.

Riot police used teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in torrential rain. Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said 19 people, including some police, were hospitalized with minor injuries.

He said the policeman who died was hit by a vehicle in a convoy of cars driving away from the protest, one of which was carrying opposition leader Nino Burjanadze.

"Burjanadze and her husband were rushing to leave the scene in a convoy of five jeeps. One of the vehicles from their convoy hit a policemen who later died in hospital," he said.

Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally who has vowed to lead a peaceful revolution against him, could not be reached for immediate comment but told a television station the opposition would continue fighting to oust the 43-year-old leader.

Burjanadze, who has been courted by Russia, did not answer her mobile phone or return repeated calls. There was no suggestion that she or her husband were behind the wheel of the vehicle in question.

Thousands of riot police went in after midnight, detaining several dozen people, to end five days of protests calling for Saakashvili to quit and for early elections.

A Reuters reporter saw a riot policeman beat one protester with a baton. Some demonstrators were armed with metal poles and sticks. Windows were smashed at the cinema on Tbilisi's main street. Emergency workers were tending to several people with blood on their faces.

Opponents accuse the pro-Western Saakashvili of monopolizing power since the 2003 Rose Revolution that ousted the post-Soviet old guard in the Caucasus state, where pipelines carry oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.

"The people of Georgia seek nothing more than freedom to determine their own future, and for too long their wishes have been swept to one side by President Saakashvili's iron-fisted authoritarian rule," Burjanadze said in a statement before the protest.

"He has spent millions of dollars in the West portraying himself as a democratic leader when in fact he has tried to crush any domestic opposition to his tyranny."

About 5,000 people gathered for the protest and several hundred refused to disperse to make way for an Independence Day military parade, as demanded by local authorities.

Weakened by losing a brief war with Russia in August 2008, Saakashvili has since reasserted control. He is due to step down as president in 2013 when his term ends.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)