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2 killed in violent dispersal of anti-government protest in Georgia

- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Georgian officials went ahead Thursday with an Independence Day military parade along the central avenue where two people were killed and almost 40 injured in the violent breakup of an anti-government protest hours earlier.

The demonstration had been intended to prevent the parade, which began on Rustaveli Avenue without any signs of the overnight chaos. The rally, which began late Wednesday, also was aimed at forcing President Mikhail Saakashvili from office.

Riot police moved in with a water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets after a couple of thousand demonstrators defied a midnight deadline to disperse. Ninety people were arrested, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Thursday.

The Interior Ministry said the two victims - a police officer and a demonstrator - were killed when they were hit by one of several cars fleeing the rally after the violence began.

Nearly 40 people remained hospitalized Thursday, including eight police officers and one local journalist. Opposition activists claimed police beat protesters who had already been arrested and were not resisting.

The violence was the climax of several days of peaceful protests led by opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze and others. They call Mr. Saakashvili's government oppressive and have been calling for his ouster for years.

Mr. Saakashvili, meanwhile, said the protesters had been bent on confrontation with the authorities, who have allowed his opponents almost unbridled freedom in their protests over the past few years.

"It's not freedom of speech they wanted," Mr. Saakashvili said in a speech marking the start of the parade, which marked 20 years of independence since the Soviet breakup.

"They wanted violence and victims, and when they didn't get what they wanted from the clashes with police, their leaders were the first to flee from the scene in a motorcade, their cars ran over two people," he said.

Ms. Burdzhanadze was at the rally when it turned ugly but said the motorcade didn't belong to her and urged authorities to find the perpetrators.

Russia, meanwhile, condemned the way the rally was broken up, saying it amounted to a human rights violation.

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