Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Georgia's capital Friday, demanding that the president step down following the arrest of a former defense minister who accused the leader of involvement in a murder plot.
The small, U.S.-allied former Soviet republic was thrown into turmoil earlier this week, when the hawkish former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili alleged that President Mikhail Saakashvili, his former ally, was corrupt and had encouraged him to kill a prominent businessman.
The stunning allegations came as already-soaring tensions between the Georgian government and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia spiked further. Heavy gunfire between separatist and Georgian forces erupted Thursday night in South Ossetia's main city and Abkhazian officials ordered heavy weaponry and extra troops deployed along the internal border separating Abkhazia and Georgia.
The turmoil is some of the worst to hit poor Caucasus Mountains nation since Saakashvili was propelled to power in the 2003 uprising known as the Rose Revolution.
President at U.N. assembly
Saakashvili, who has been in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly, has not commented on the allegations made by Okruashvili, or on the latest tension with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Security agents and police officials detained Okruashvili on Thursday at the offices of the new political party he announced earlier this week. On Friday, prosecutors charged him with extortion, money-laundering and abuse of power.
In downtown Tbilisi, some 10,000 opposition supporters gathered in front of parliament, blocking traffic on the capital's main avenue and chanting "Irakli! Irakli!" In an appeal that was read out by a member of his Movement for a United Georgia, Okruashvili called on his supporters to "unite and fight."
Police with truncheons and several water cannons stood by; skirmishes occasionally broke out with protesters and police pushing one another.
Opposition People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, another former Saakashvili ally, told the crowd it was "time we overthrew this gang led by Saakashvili."
A senior official of the ruling United National Movement party, David Kirkitadze, warned that authorities would take steps to stop "any attempts to forcibly overthrow the legitimate government."
Protesters later vowed to hold round-the-clock demonstrations until new elections were called.
Okruashvili had been an ally of Saakashvili since before the Rose Revolution. He served as prosecutor general and was defense minister until November, when he was named minister of economic development. He left a week later and went into private business.
Russia accused of meddling
Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under government control and has pushed his nation to seek membership in NATO and the European Union — a policy that put him on a collision course with neighboring Russia.
In his speech before the U.N. on Wednesday, Saakashvili said Russia continues to interfere in Georgia's domestic politics and engage in "reckless and dangerous" behavior.
He also accused Russia of trying to skew reports of an incident last week in Abkhazia in which Georgian forces killed two Russian military officials and again suggested that Russian peacekeepers were biased against Georgia.
The comments brought a sharp retort from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in comments published on the Foreign Ministry Web site.
"These accusations by Georgia against Russia sound like blasphemy," Lavrov said.
"Georgian leaders have long been trying to represent the whole thing as if Russian peacekeepers were the problem," he said.