TBILISI, Nov 8 (Reuters) Troops cordoned off the deserted streets of central Tbilisi today after Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency and shut down independent media to quash six days of anti-government protests.
Opposition leaders said they were suspending protests to avoid more injuries. Over 550 demonstrators were hospitalised toyesterday after the government crushed protests by using riot police armed with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
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.
NATO criticised Georgia's state of emergency, saying the imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets were ''not in line with Euro-Atlantic values''. Saakashvili has vigorously pursued membership of the Western military alliance.
Former Soviet master Russia 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.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Georgia's senior diplomat in Moscow to announce counter-measures after Tbilisi expelled three Russian diplomats on Wednesday, accusing them of spying and fomenting unrest, charges denied by Moscow.
Saakashvili faces his worst crisis since he came to power in a bloodless revolution in 2003. A close US ally, he has attempted to portray his small former Soviet state as a beacon of democracy and stability in the volatile Caucasus region -- an image which now lies in tatters.
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.
''Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police,'' said US-based Human Rights Watch in a statement. ''Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force.'' Saakashvili wants to take Georgia -- an east-west oil transport link wedged between Russia and 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.
INTERNATIONAL CONCERN In a sign of increasing international concern, the US State Department called on the government and the opposition to avoid actions that could lead to further violence and the European Union sent its top envoy for the region to Georgia.
Army trucks and hundreds of soldiers blocked side roads leading into Tbilisi's main street today, allowing only a handful of people through onto the normally thronged road.
Litter covered the quiet streets where hours earlier police had fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.
''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.
Armed police yesterday stormed the main opposition broadcaster and took it off the air, 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.
US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty told Reuters that the authorities had also knocked its Georgian-language programmes off the air.
Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said authorities had prevented a coup and Saakashvili said he had evidence that Russian intelligence had been organising the opposition. Protest leaders dismissed the charges as absurd, saying they mostly shared Saakashvili's pro-Western foreign policy stance.
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.
REUTERS MS KP1827