Riot police drive protesters away from Georgian parliament
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannons early Friday to drive thousands of protesters away from Georgia's parliament building and off the capital's main avenue. As dawn broke, police appeared to be in full control of the city center after a night of clashes that injured scores.
The unrest began when thousands of demonstrators calling for the government to resign tried to storm the parliament. Nearly 70 people — 39 police and 30 civilians — were treated in hospitals for injuries in the night of clashes, said David Sergeenko, an adviser to the prime minister. But the Rustavi-2 television station reported 100 injured demonstrators had been counted at one hospital.
After demonstrators were pushed away from the parliament, police tried to drive them away along Tbilisi's main avenue. But demonstrators resisted for hours and police launched barrages of tear gas. Many of the demonstrators tried to fend off the tear gas with surgical masks or by holding clothing to their mouths. Some brandished shields that apparently had been taken from police.
By 5 a.m. (0100 GMT), protesters appeared to be fully dispersed and phalanxes of police accompanied by armored vehicles strode down the avenue. The unrest was sparked by the appearance Thursday of Russian legislator Sergei Gavrilov in the building as part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries.
Gavrilov has supported calls for independence for the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over which Georgia lost control in a 2008 war with Russia. He is also a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a figure despised by many Georgians.
Georgia and Russia broke diplomatic relations after the war and although steps have been made to restore normal relations, animosity toward Russia is strong and many Georgians resent any sort of official visit by Russians.
The visit of the Russian delegation of the Orthodox assembly already had prompted complaints, but the anger turned into a street protest after Gavrilov sat in the chair of the Georgian parliament speaker during a session of the assembly.
"We asked the government not to allow this guy to come here, but they have allowed -- not only allowed to cross the Georgian border, but to sit in the chair of the president of the Parliament. So, this was the biggest humiliation of the nation and that's why this big crowd came despite these bullets and tear gas people are here and still fighting," said Gigi Ugulava, a top figure in the opposition European Georgia party.
AP journalist Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.