TBILISI, Nov 7 (Reuters) President Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency in the Georgian capital Tbilisi today after police fought pitched battles with protesters, and the prime minister said there had been an attempt at a coup.
''The president has declared a state of emergency in Tbilisi and this decision will be submitted to parliament within 48 hours,'' Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said on television.
''There was an attempt at a coup and creating disorder.'' Riot police armed with batons repeatedly clubbed and kicked unarmed demonstrators in Tbilisi, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the streets, reporters at the scene said.
Special forces stormed an opposition TV station and Saakashvili blamed Russia for the crisis in the former Soviet state, now an US ally.
Saakashvili announced he was expelling three Russian diplomats from Georgia and withdrawing his ambassador from Moscow, claiming he had evidence that Russian intelligence was behind six days of mass protests.
''We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty geo-political escapades by other countries,'' he said in a television broadcast. ''Our democracy needs a firm hand of the authorities.'' Shortly after his remarks, the main opposition television station Imedi said it had been stormed by Georgian special forces and went off the air. Imedi had been broadcasting extensive coverage of the opposition demonstrations.
Witnesses at the scene said armed police had forced staff to the floor, smashed equipment, destroyed mobile phones and put guns to employees' heads.
Saakashvili has previously trumpeted his country as a shining example of democracy and respect for human rights in the volatile Caucasus region, which is mainly governed by authoritarian leaders.
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''.
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, who wants to join NATO and the EU, 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.
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.
REUTERS MP AS0124