Georgian president concerns West, angers Russia

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TBILISI, Nov 8 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili drew an angry response from Russia today and faced growing censure from supporters in the West after he quashed opposition protests and imposed emergency rule.

Facing the biggest political crisis since coming to power in 2003, Saakashvili sent in riot police to disperse protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets yesterday and deployed special forces to shut down an opposition TV station.

Troops cordoned off the deserted streets of central Tbilisi and opposition leaders said they were suspending protests to avoid more injuries.

Saakashvili, a close US ally, has attempted to portray his small ex-Soviet state as a beacon of democracy and stability in the Caucasus region, an image which now lies in tatters.

In an unusually strong rebuke to a US ally, NATO scolded Saakashvili for imposing a state of emergency that his government says was needed to prevent a coup. The European Commission also expressed concern.

''The imposition of emergency rule, and the closure of media outlets in Georgia, a partner with which the alliance has an intensified dialogue, are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values,'' Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement.

France's Foreign Ministry said attacks on the press and freedoms were unacceptable and urged the government to show restraint.

Russia, accused by Saakashvili of stirring up the disorder, expelled three Georgian diplomats after Saakashvili said Georgia had ordered three Russian diplomats out of Tbilisi.

Moscow said the violent crackdown on protesters in Tbilisi had ''evidently shown what democracy Georgia-style is'' and appealed to the United Nations and the Council of Europe to pressure Georgia to stop using violence.

Russia denied it had anything to do with the disorder in Tbilisi and said Saakashvili was trying to distract attention from domestic problems.

STATE OF EMERGENCY Georgian schools were closed until next week, only state corporations were allowed to broadcast news and meetings were banned under the emergency measures which will last until November 22, subject to parliamentary approval.

Armed police stormed the main opposition broadcaster and took it off the air on Wednesday, forcing staff to the ground and holding guns to their heads. All independent television news programmes have been halted for the 15-day state of emergency.

Georgia has a history of volatility. It was ravaged by civil war in the early 1990s and separatist rebellions, largely peaceful, are under way in two regions of the country. Tbilisi sees the hand of Moscow in both.

Saakashvili wants to take Georgia - an east-west oil transport link wedged between Russia and the West Asia - into NATO and the European Union, policies which have set him on a collision course with Moscow.

Domestic opponents have criticised him for an authoritarian style that brooks no dissent, for continuing human rights abuses and for failing to tackle poverty and unemployment.

''Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police,'' said U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in a statement. ''Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force.'' Army trucks and hundreds of soldiers blocked side roads leading into Tbilisi's main street today, allowing only a handful of people through.

''I look at the policemen and see that they cannot look into people's eyes because they are ashamed,'' Tbilisi resident Keti Tavadze said as she stood near a line of soldiers and police.

Reuters NY DB2029

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