Clashes at anti-government protest in Georgia

Protesters held an all-night demonstration against Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tbilisi: Police in Georgia fired rubber bullets at protesters holding an all-night demonstration against Western-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili after they attacked a car full of people on Sunday.

Local television in the ex-Soviet state showed pictures of a group of anti-government protesters with sticks attacking the car on Sunday morning, smashing its windows and beating people inside.

"Police were forced to use rubber bullets to defend peaceful citizens," interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

A spokeswoman for opposition leader Nino Burjanadze said the clash was provoked by the people in the car, who tried to seize an activist from the overnight protest outside the Georgian public television studios.

"People in the car were trying to kidnap one of the rally organisers and the protesters attempted to defend him," Burjanadze`s spokeswoman Khatuna Ivanishvili said.

Several hundred people continued the protest outside the television studios after the incident, many of them carrying sticks.

A second clash then erupted when angry protesters threw stones at cars which had approached the demonstration, suspecting the drivers of being undercover police officers.

Around 6,000 supporters of the National Assembly opposition alliance rallied in Tbilisi on Saturday, accusing President Saakashvili of authoritarianism and calling for him to resign.

Hundreds more rallied in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, where protests were broken up by police after activists tried to force their way into a local television station, demanding airtime.

The National Assembly alleged that hundreds of its activists have been arrested over the past three days.

"The authorities are carrying out a terror campaign against opposition supporters," Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary speaker for the Saakashvili government, said.

But the Interior Ministry denied this, saying that only those who attacked the car in Tbilisi had been detained.

Protesters accuse Saakashvili of failing to tackle widespread poverty and of losing large parts of Georgian territory during the country`s disastrous war with Russia in 2008.

But in a sign of the bitter divisions that have split Georgia`s opposition, several other anti-government parties refused to take part in the rallies on Saturday, and the turnout was small by local standards.

In a televised interview on Saturday night, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said that the low turnout proved that there was no public support for radical opposition leaders.

"These people are so few, so weak that they cannot do anything," he said.

Saakashvili`s pro-Western administration -- which deployed riot squads to crush demonstrations in 2007 at a time when Burjanadze was a leading official -- has said it supports the right to peaceful protest.

Despite defeat in the war with Russia and the crackdown in 2007, Saakashvili has remained the country`s most powerful figure and many believe he could continue to dominate Georgian politics after his term ends in 2013.

Bureau Report

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