TBILISI, November 7 (RIA Novosti) - Georgian riot police used water cannons and tear gas on Wednesday to disperse rallies of thousands of protesters demanding President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation and early elections.
After hundreds of riot police with shields and batons broke up a rally outside parliament, opposition supporters staged a new protest on the city's Rike Square. Harsh methods were again used to dispel the crowd, including rubber bullets and tear gas.
Opposition arrests and police beatings have angered the crowds, now gathering for a sixth day in central Tbilisi.
The Georgian Health Ministry said that around 360 people have so far been injured in the clashes, and 109 remain in hospital. Health Minister David Tkeshelashvili said the state would pay for the medical treatment of those injured.
The Imedi TV said later that Koba Davitashvili, the opposition People's Party leader, was hospitalized in a serious condition.
Georgian Interior Ministry troops and army units have been deployed on the streets to prevent the protesters from breaking through to the parliament's building. All 23 metro stations in the capital have been closed.
Aside from President Saakashvili's resignation, the Georgian opposition is demanding early elections in April 2008, electoral reform, and the freeing of "political prisoners". Saakashvili has so far refused to negotiate with the protesters.
At the peak of the protests, between 50,000 and 100,000 people, according to different estimates, rallied on Friday, the first day of Georgia's worst unrest since the 2003 "rose revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power.
Imedi TV said protests have now spilled over into other Georgian cities. The largest provincial rally is taking place in Batumi on the Black Sea coast.
Protesters accuse the president of corruption, authoritarianism, and failed economic reforms. Many continue to support former defense minister Irakly Okruashvili, previously a key ally of the president, who in late September publicly accused Saakashvili of ordering the murders of political opponents and of plotting the forceful seizure of breakaway South Ossetia. Days after the comments he was arrested and charged with blackmail, money laundering, and abuse of office, but was later released.
Imedi TV channel reported that a Georgian opposition leader detained earlier today had launched a hunger strike. Giorgy Khaindrava announced the measure after being taken to a Tbilisi court to face charges of inciting public disorder and resisting police. He was later released by the court after paying a fine of around $250.
National media also reported that authorities are searching the office of businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who earlier pledged to finance political opposition in the country.
Later in the day, the Imedi TV company, which has been covering opposition protests and makes part of Patarkatsishvili's holding, said special task force of the Georgian Interior Ministry took over the offices of the Imedi television channel, cutting broadcasts and online programs.
Georgian lawmaker Levan Gachechiladze, who had been taking part in a hunger strike outside parliament, said he had been attacked by police, but warned that "the people will soon beat Saakashvili in the same manner".
The head of Georgia's Orthodox Church voiced his concern over the unrest, and pledged the church's support in resolving the standoff.
"The situation in Georgia is slipping out of control," Patriarch Ilia II said. "I think there is only one route - and that is dialogue between the leadership and the opposition. If there is willingness from both sides, we are ready to take part in this dialogue."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the ongoing unrest is an internal affair for Georgia but stressed that Russia is concerned by the events. "What is happening in Georgia is its internal affair, and I would not like to comment in detail on the situation. But it is of concern to us," he said.
The minister said that in addition to the crisis in Tbilisi, Georgia's leadership is attempting to scupper talks on regulating the country's conflicts with its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The European Union and NATO said they were closely watching the situation in Georgia and urged the country's authorities and opposition to refrain from confrontation.