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Georgia Protests Dispersed By Police

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GEORGIA PROTESTS
AP

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgian police said one officer was killed early Thursday in the forceful breakup of a protest outside the parliament building, where demonstrators were aiming to block an Independence Day parade to push their demands that the president resign.

Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the policeman died after being struck by a car containing protest organizers that was speeding away from the site of the clash between police and about 1,500 demonstrators.

The demonstrators were calling for the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili and had planned to move later Thursday to a nearby square in order to try to block a military parade marking the country's independence day.

Utiashvili said 19 other policemen were hospitalized in the clash, in which police fired water cannon and tear gas at the demonstrators. Protest leaders said dozens of demonstrators were arrested, but there were no immediate official figures.

Demonstrations against Saakashvili began Saturday, but had attracted only a few thousand people at most. Protests leaders, hoping to assemble a massive and dramatic manifestation, had aimed to move from the parliament building to a nearby square through which the military parade was to pass later Thursday.

But their demonstration permit expired at midnight Wednesday and within minutes after time ran out, police moved in on the crowd, spraying water on them and letting off tear gas. Some witnesses said police also fired rubber bullets.

Utiashvili said authorities had offered the protesters alternate venues for a Thursday demonstration that would not block the parade, but that protest leaders refused.

One of the opposition leaders, former world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili, said dozens of demonstrators were arrested.

Saakashvili came under severe criticism at home and abroad in 2007 after a violent police crackdown on protests, which damaged his image as a democratic reformer. Dissatisfaction with him rose further after Georgia's brief war with Russia in 2008, in which Russia advanced far into Georgian territory and Georgia fully lost control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions.

But weeks of protests in the spring of 2009 failed to force his resignation and the opposition, weakened by factional disputes, appears unable to galvanize people in numbers similar to the tens of thousands who came to the streets in the 2003 Rose Revolution that helped bring Saakashvili to power.

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