TBILISI, Nov 8 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared a 15-day countrywide state of emergency after sending in riot police to battle protestors and special forces stormed a leading opposition TV station.
Saakashvili, facing his worst political crisis since coming to power in 2003, blamed Russia for stirring up civil strife after riot police clashed with protestors in Tbilisi calling for his resignation.
Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said yesterday that authorities had prevented a coup. Economic Development Minister Georgy Arveladze said that all independent television news programmes would be stopped during the 15-day state of emergency.
Riot police used tear gas and water cannon on unarmed demonstrators. Special forces troops wielding automatic weapons stormed the country's main opposition television channel, Imedi, which was then taken off air.
Georgia expelled three Russian diplomats and recalled its ambassador from Moscow. Saakashvili claimed he had evidence that Russian intelligence was behind the disorder.
Relations between Georgia, a former Soviet republic, 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.
''We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty geo-political escapades by other countries,'' Saakashvili told the nation in a television broadcast yesterday. ''Our democracy needs the firm hand of the authorities.'' Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003 on the back of protests that drove Eduard Shevardnadze from office, has forged close ties with Washington and says he wants to take his small Caucasus nation into NATO and the European Union.
The Kremlin called Saakashvili's accusations ''anti-Russian hysterics'' and Moscow said it would make ''an adequate response'', signalling possible tit-for-tat expulsions.
PASSIONS INFLAMED Saakashvili flaunts his democratic credentials but critics say that is a facade that masks an authoritarian streak.
The opposition said he has grabbed too much power and should step down after calling early elections. But Saakashvili responded with a show of force.
The Imedi television channel is controlled by billionaire tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. Special forces forced journalists and employees onto the ground at gunpoint, Reuters witnesses said, shouting at employees and smashing their mobile phones.
Ambulances were stopped from entering the compound.
''Heavily armed special police forces stormed the building and ordered everyone down on the floor,'' said Gia Maisashvili, an opposition leader who was inside the station when it was stormed.
''They placed guns at the heads of lots of people.'' Prime Minister Nogaideli said restrictions will be imposed on demonstrations and media will be restricted from calling for protests and violence.
Earlier, riot police in masks and armed with batons clubbed and kicked unarmed demonstrators, firing rubber bullets into the crowd, Reuters reporters at the scene said.
Georgian hospitals took in 508 patients in Tbilisi, the Health Ministry said, with nearly 100 remaining overnight with injuries. Twenty-four police officers were among the wounded.
''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,'' Patarkatsishvili told the Kavkaz Press news agency from Tel Aviv.
Opposition leaders said Saakashvili's actions proved 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,'' said opposition leader Kakha Kukava.
Saakashvili said he employed means used in many democratic and civilised countries, adding: ''There is nothing unusual, but also nothing pleasant in this because every bullet that hits one of our citizens causes me great pain.'' Georgia's human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari told reporters he was among those beaten by police.
The European Union said it was sending its special envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby to Georgia to meet ''all the relevant parties''.
Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, condemned the government crackdown as ''completely unacceptable''.
REUTERS MP AS0427