Georgia blames Russia as police, protesters clash

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TBILISI, Nov 7 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili blamed Russia today for orchestrating six days of mass protests against him, hours after riot police beat and fired tear gas at opposition demonstrators.

''Georgia is facing a very serious threat of unrest,'' Saakashvili said in a televised address. ''High-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this.'' Georgia has recalled its ambassador to Moscow and would expel several Russian diplomats from Tbilisi, he said.

There was no immediate reaction from Russia, which has very poor relations with its southern neighbour. Moscow has before rejected as a ''farce'' suggestions of involvement in protests.

In a sign of international concern, the European Union said it was sending its special envoy for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, to Georgia to meet ''all the relevant parties''.

Earlier, Saakashvili's government for the first time used force against the six-day-old mass protests, sending in riot police to combat protesters calling for the president's resignation.

''We cannot let our country become a stage for dirty geopolitical escapades by other countries,'' Saakashvili said.

''Our democracy needs a firm hand by the authorities.'' Protesters later regrouped in Tbilisi's Old Town and were again dispersed by riot police. Around 360 people were taken to hospital, officials said, and 109 remained hospitalised on Wednesday evening.

PASSIONS INFLAMED Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, told reporters he was among those beaten by police. ''Although I told them that I am a defender of human rights, they told me 'This is precisely why the beating is so harsh''', he said.

Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, condemned the government crackdown as ''completely unacceptable''.

''There is only one way -- negotiations,'' he said.

Saakashvili has flatly rejected the protesters' call for an early parliamentary election, but the government's use of force to put down the demonstrations has inflamed passions further in the volatile former Soviet republic.

''Saakashvili's regime showed us that it is in no way different from the Communist regime whose soldiers beat their citizens with shovels in the same place,'' billionaire business tycoon Badri Patarkatsashvili told the Kavkaz Press news agency.

Opposition leaders said the actions of Saakashvili, a staunch US ally who wants to join NATO, proved their accusations that he was an authoritarian and corrupt president.

''The authorities have used weapons against peaceful demonstrators and therefore the authorities will get what they deserve from the people,'' opposition leader Kakha Kukava was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

POLICE DRESSED IN BLACK Relations between Georgia and Russia were already at all-time lows. Saakashvili's desire to join NATO and his drive to regain sovereignty over two breakaway pro-Russian provinces have angered Moscow, which last year cut all transport links.

''Russia has launched a wide-scale attack against Georgia,'' Georgian Parliament Minister Givi Targamadze said on television.

Opposition members had ''sold their motherland for a specific price'', he added.

Opposition leaders, who have not questioned Saakashvili's pro-Western line, called the accusations baseless and laughable.

They said the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) was responsible for the ''wild'' accusations of Russian intervention.

Earlier in central Tbilisi, police dressed in black and wearing balaclavas repeatedly beat and punched protesters, witnesses said.

Clouds of tear gas filled the area in central Tbilisi and choked the crowds.

''Only a fascist power could do this,'' Nana Abuladze, 56, said between vomiting.

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