Masked police beat protesters at political rally

Georgian police clashed with opposition activists in the capital yesterday, arresting dozens and beating demonstrators, along with several journalists.

The clash was the latest violence to hit Georgia, as the opposition presses its more than 2-month-old campaign to force President Mikhail Saakashvili from office.

An Associated Press photographer saw truncheon-armed masked officers beating demonstrators who had gathered near the police headquarters. Several activists were severely beaten, along with several TV journalists and camera crews who said they had their tapes and video cameras confiscated.

Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze said the 39 protesters that were arrested had resisted police who tried to arrest several men accused of assaulting lawmakers in an earlier incident. They also were blocking a public street, she said.

She also apologized to the journalists who were beaten and whose equipment was seized, saying it was "our mistake."

Earlier Monday, scuffles erupted outside the parliament building when men started dismantling mock jail cells that had been set up by opposition groups. Demonstrators insisted the men were police officials, though police said they were just city residents fed up with the protests.

Opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze blamed Saakashvili for the violence, accusing him of trying to spark a civil uprising. "It will end badly for you," she said in televised comments, addressing the president.

Saakashvili, meanwhile, appeared to criticize the police actions.

"When the authorities demand that someone defends and obeys the law, law enforcement agencies should also follow the same principle," he said in televised comments.

Opposition parties blame Saakashvili for the country's humiliating defeat in its war with Russia last year and accuse him of failing to deliver promised democratic reforms.

Georgia's location astride a key energy route has made it the focus of a growing rivalry between Russia and the West.

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