(BBC) Georgia's government has declared a state of emergency, accusing Russia of orchestrating a coup attempt following pitched battles between police and opposition supporters in the capital. A television station carrying pictures of the violence has been pulled off the air
The country's image as a bastion of democratic western values in the former Soviet sphere took a battering after riot police attacked opposition protesters in Tbilisi and used force to pull the main anti-government television station off the air.
Facing calls for his resignation, President Mikhail Saakashvili, a vital ally in America's war on terror, was accused the Kremlin of instigating the violence. "The president has declared a state of emergency in Tbilisi," the prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli said on television.
In an earlier announcement likely to enrage Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, Mr Saakashvili ordered the expulsion of three Russian diplomats and recalled Georgia's ambassador from Moscow, claiming that Russia was engaged in "subversive, espionage activity in Georgia".
The Russian foreign ministry rejected the accusation as a "provocation" and said that Moscow would issue an "appropriate response". Moscow has sought to exact revenge on Georgia ever since it snubbed Russian proxy rule by sweeping Mr Saakashvili to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution. After imposing a blockade on Georgia's most important exports, Moscow punished its further last year by severing transport and communication links. While Mr Saakashvili has won praise in Washington for moving his country closer to the West, concern has been mounting over his increasingly autocratic tendencies.
Critics said those were on full display after riot police fire rubber bullets into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, some of whom said they were then kicked and beaten as they tried to flee.
Among those who said they were deliberately victimised was Georgia's human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari. "Although I told them that I am a defender of human rights, they told me 'this is precisely why the beating is so harsh,'" he said. As the violence escalated opposition television station Imedi, which had been carrying live pictures of the violence, was suddenly pulled off the air. Moments before, a visibly nervous presenter announced that the station was under attack by government forces. Independent witnesses said special forces stormed the building, putting guns to the heads of journalists before smashing their mobile phones. Georgia has been in crisis since the hawkish former defence minister Irkaly Okruashvili, once an ally of Mr Saakashvili, accused the president of corruption and involvement in a murder plot in September. Mr Okruashvili dropped his claims after he was arrested.
Supporters of the Georgian government say Mr Okruashvili was acting on Moscow's orders.