Georgia rebellion over, president accuses Russia
Niko Mchedlishvili And Margarita Antidze – 1 hr 1 min ago
TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgia sent tanks to put down a rebellion at a military base near the capital Tbilisi on Tuesday and the government accused Russia of financing a coup, a charge Moscow denied.
President Mikheil Saakashvili called the rebellion a "serious threat" but said the mutineers were isolated.
About 45 minutes later, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told Reuters by telephone from the Mukhrovani tank base that the rebellion was over and the base commander had been arrested.
Saakashvili accused the plotters of links to Moscow and demanded that Russia "refrain from provocations." Georgia lost a brief war against neighboring Russia last August over the rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said Saakashvili, who is facing growing opposition protests demanding his resignation, was trying to blame Moscow for his own domestic problems.
Police kept reporters at a distance from the mutinous base. It was not clear how many of the several hundred troops stationed there supported the uprising.
Earlier, Russia's Interfax news agency said Mukhrovani base commander Mamuka Gorgishvili had made a statement criticizing Saakashvili's government but pledging not to use force.
"One cannot look calmly at the process of the country falling apart, at the ongoing confrontation. But our tank unit will not resort to any aggressive actions," the agency quoted Gorgishvili as saying.
A Reuters reporter saw around 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers moving along the main road from Tbilisi toward the base.
Saakashvili has been under pressure domestically since the war with Russia.
Military experts in Tbilisi suggested the rebellion could be linked with government plans to use troops to end weeks of opposition road blocks, and that some officers had refused to participate.
"This chimes with what we are hearing from military sources," a senior Western diplomat said when asked about these suggestions.
'REFLECTION OF PROBLEMS'
Rogozin told Reuters from Brussels that the mutiny "is just a reflection of the all-embracing political and economic crisis that is developing under Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency."
"Saakashvili and his entourage are trying to explain the consequences of their foolishness by (alleging) Moscow's underhand plotting."
Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said the plotters wanted to undermine NATO exercises beginning this week in Georgia which Russia has criticized. "The main aim of this uprising was to disrupt the NATO military exercises," Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told Reuters.
Rogozin said NATO would be better off holding its exercises in a madhouse since "Georgia's military cannot properly receive their colleagues because they are rioting against their own president."
Sikharulidze said the commanders of the military base 19 km (12 miles) from the capital had been dismissed and the soldiers ordered to stay in barracks. He told Rustavi 2 television that the rebellion was also "an attempt at a military coup."
The news from Georgia had little impact on markets. Georgian assets are little traded and investors have been skeptical in the past of government statements until facts were clear.
Russia crushed in a matter of days a Georgian assault on the rebel pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia last August, drawing criticism from the West for a "disproportionate" response.
The war slammed the brakes on Georgia's bid for membership of NATO, which the Kremlin fiercely opposes as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. It also piled pressure on Saakashvili.
RUSSIAN ANGER AT NATO GAMES
Protesters taking part in demonstrations over the past month are demanding he resign over his record on democracy and the lost war.
The opposition announced on Monday it would broaden street blockades beyond central Tbilisi, threatening to close the main east-west highway and entrances to the capital.
NATO declined to comment. The month-long military exercises from May 6 to June 3 are a gesture of solidarity for Georgia, a country of 4.5 million people at the heart of a region crucial for energy transit from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Around 1,000 soldiers from more than a dozen NATO member states and partners will practice "crisis response" at a Georgian army base east of Tbilisi, around 70 km (44 miles) from the nearest Russian troop positions in breakaway South Ossetia.
The month-long exercises at a former Russian air force base in Vaziani are seen as a signal from the 28-member alliance that, despite doubts over the promise of eventual membership, Georgia has not been forgotten.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said the decision to go ahead with the exercises was mistaken.
"I want to specifically stress that responsibility for possible negative consequences of these decisions will fully rest on the shoulders of those who made them and carry them out," he said on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, writing by Matt Robinson and Michael Stott, editing by Robert Woodward)