TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — 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, was also 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 remain hospitalized Thursday, including eight police 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 Saakashvili's government oppressive and have been calling for his ouster for years.
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," 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.
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.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement later that one of her assistants, Ivan Chigvinadze, and a member of her Democratic Movement party, Zakhary Zurashvili, had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the deaths.
Neither Burdzhanadze nor any relatives were in any of the cars at the time, one of her aides, Eliso Khachapuridze, told The Associated Press. Some Georgian media reported Burdzhanadze's son had been briefly detained over the incident.
Saakashvili, as in previous protests, claimed the disorder was organized "outside the confines of the country," a thinly veiled barb at Russia, which is hostile to his leadership.
Russia, meanwhile, condemned the way the rally was broken up, saying it amounted to a human rights violation.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Saakashvili's "actions against the opposition, in breach of generally accepted democratic norms, should be investigated in the most serious manner on the international level." Russian police are notorious for brutally crushing banned opposition rallies.