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Georgia: Brief mutiny at military base halted

/ Source: news services

Georgia said it had ended a brief mutiny at a military base near the capital on Tuesday that broke out after the arrest of a former special forces commander accused of planning to disrupt NATO exercises.

President Mikhail Saakashvili said in a televised address that the mutiny was an isolated case and the situation in the country was fully under control.

"I personally led negotiations with the mutineers and suggested they turn in their weapons and give themselves up to police" and had suggested force could be used if they declined, he said.

The mutiny followed an announcement by the Interior Ministry that it had uncovered a Russia-supported plot to overthrow the government and had arrested the suspected organizers. The defense minister said the mutiny was in response to the arrests the night before.

But the Interior Ministry later backed off and said the coup plotters, backed by Russian troops, were intent mainly on disrupting NATO military exercises set to begin Wednesday in Georgia.

An official in Saakashvili's office said the mutiny was effectively over and that the intent of the mutineers seemed to be limited to disrupting the upcoming NATO exercises. There was no evidence, he said, that they planned a coup attempt. Neither is there any evidence of Russian involvement. He spoke on condition he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Russia, which fought a brief war against Georgia last year, has sharply criticized the exercises, which it said would encourage Saakashvili to rebuild its devastated army.

Protests against Saakashvili
Saakashvili has been the target of more than three weeks of street protests by opposition demonstrators demanding he resign. His government has accused Russians of supporting the opposition.

The official in Saakashvili's office said, "There's absolutely nothing going on in Tbilisi, at the base or anywhere in the country."

He said the mutiny was inspired by a small group of disgruntled officers who were involved in a similar action at the same base in 2001.

Russia, opposition decry 'tall tale'
Russia's NATO envoy Dmitri Rogozin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the allegations of Russian involvement were "crazy."

Opposition leader and former Saakashvili ally Georgy Khaindrava said the reports of the planned coup were made up.

"It's nothing but a tall tale, and we've heard so many of them already," Khaindrava said. "Saakashvili could not make up anything smarter."

NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda, who has reported from the region, said he thought Saakashvili was "dying to flex his muscles" ahead of the NATO exercises.

Georgian opposition supporters attend a rally near the parliament building in Tbilisi on May 4, 2009. Georgia's opposition said it will block key highways in the country in an effort to step up pressure on President Mikheil Saakashvili after nearly a month of anti-government protests. AFP PHOTO / Vano SHLAMOV (Photo credit should read VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)VANO SHLAMOV / AFP

"The government says it has arrested or is seeking three civilians who were plotting a coup; these individuals have been picked up before for previous so-called mutinies that never panned out," he said.

"This latest 'crushed coup' is more about internal politics, and building up Saakashvili's 'western credentials,' than any major threat to [his government]. Given [Saakashvili's] track record, it could all be for show. But this also being Georgia, it's worth monitoring as NATO war games continue over the next four weeks there."

Arrests reported
Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the suspected coup plot was organized by a former special forces commander, Georgy Gvaladze. Gvaladze and an army officer on active duty have been arrested, the spokesman said.

He said the ministry has a video of Gvaladze talking to his supporters about the planned coup, and that he is shown saying that 5,000 Russian troops will come to support the coup, planned for Thursday.

Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said he had been blocked from entering the military base in Mukhrovani, about 20 miles from Tbilisi, the capital. The base's tank battalion of about 500 army personnel had announced that they would refuse to follow orders, he said.

Among the mutineers were civilians who had no relation to the battalion, he said.

The NATO exercises, which continue through June 1, were originally planned to include about 1,300 personnel from 19 NATO and partner nations.

But some former Soviet republics have recently decided not to take part.

Among the countries to back out was Armenia, which is dependent on Russia for its economic survival. Four other former Soviet republics — Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Moldova — and Serbia also had decided to pull out, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported Tuesday.

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