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Georgia quells tank battalion mutiny

Georgia’s president, a post-Soviet darling of the Bush administration, is struggling with a buildup of Russian troops in breakaway territories and an angry opposition movement intent on driving him from power. Suddenly, the integrity of the armed forces is in doubt as well.

The short-lived mutiny of a tank battalion Tuesday was another reminder of the instability that has racked Georgia since it was defeated last summer in a war with Russia. President Mikheil Saakashvili rushed to negotiate with the mutineers. And he took to the airwaves to accuse Russia -- whose leaders loathe him and are bitterly opposed to his hopes of joining NATO -- of trying to organize a coup.

“What happened today is just a signal that the war has not ended yet,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

The flare of insurrection was over in a few hours. The commander of the 500-member tank battalion was in custody, the base was calm, and the government had turned its attention to circulating a news release describing “the failed military mutiny.”

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But the uprising further pressurized politics in the small republic in the volatile Caucasus region.

The government accused Russia of orchestrating the uprising in an effort to undermine NATO war games set to begin today in Georgia.

Saakashvili called the uprising “a serious threat and a serious challenge,” but said it was isolated. He also said the mutineers had “connections with special forces in a specific country known to us.”

“I am asking and demanding from our northern neighbor to refrain from provocations,” Saakashvili said in a televised address.

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But despite the public accusations, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili acknowledged in a telephone interview that there was no proof of Russian involvement.

“We don’t have direct evidence for the moment,” he said. “The timing of this mutiny coincides with these exercises, so that’s what we’re looking at.”

Even as troops rushed to the rebel base to contain the mutiny, the Interior Ministry said it had prevented a widespread coup plotted by some of the country’s most prominent former military leaders.

Former special forces commander Gia Gvaladze and Koba Kobaladze, who served as commander of the national guard until February 2004, were arrested and accused of organizing the military uprising, the Interior Ministry said.

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The ministry released video that appears to show Gvaladze discussing plans for the coup with somebody wearing a hidden camera. The man in the video says Russia had agreed to send 5,000 troops deeper into Georgia to seize control of the key east-west highway that runs out of Tbilisi, the capital, and bisects the country.

Russian troops have beefed up their presence in the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow last week pledged to exert even greater military control by taking charge of the hard-fought cease-fire lines with Georgia proper, which the two rebel regions regard as borders.

In the footage, the figure identified as Gvaladze discusses plans for the killing of several key officials, including the interior minister, deputy foreign minister and mayor of Tbilisi. He also names various military figures who, he says, have agreed to back the mutiny.

“It is impossible to even comment on the myths created by ill people,” former Georgian army commander Gia Karkarashvili, one of the alleged coup supporters named in the video, told Georgian television.

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Around midday, the Georgian government abruptly announced that an uprising was underway at the Mukhrovani military base, about 20 miles east of Tbilisi. Soon after, officials said the base had been surrounded and sealed off.

Police closed the roads to the base, and reporters were not able to verify the government’s version of events. Georgian television showed tanks of pro-government forces rumbling toward the base.

As the rebellion was contained, Saakashvili joined his defense and interior ministers at the military base, where he “personally led negotiations,” he later told the country.

It wasn’t clear what had motivated the military uprising, or whether all the members of the battalion backed the mutiny. The best hint came from a reported statement from the battalion’s commander carried by local news agencies, but even that was ambiguous.

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“One cannot calmly look at the process of destroying the country, at the ongoing [political] confrontation,” the battalion commander, Mamuka Gorgishvili, said in the statement. “However, there will be no aggressive actions on behalf of our tank unit. We are in barracks and we are not going to leave them.”

“They cannot articulate clearly what they want,” said Utiashvili, the Interior Ministry spokesman. “They just released a statement saying they’re unhappy with the political situation, and that’s it.”

Plans for this week’s military exercises drew bitter complaints from Moscow, where officials have bridled at the growing influence of the West in former Soviet republics. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the exercises “an open provocation,” and warned of “negative consequences” should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization press ahead.

Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Tuesday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had pulled out of a meeting with NATO officials this month to protest the exercises scheduled in Georgia and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from NATO headquarters.

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Saakashvili has faced extreme political pressure since last summer’s disastrous war with Russia, which resulted in Georgia’s two breakaway republics being recognized by Moscow as independent states. His domestic political foes accuse the U.S.-backed president of consolidating personal power at the expense of democracy and rushing headlong into an ill-advised confrontation with Moscow.

But the Georgian president has clung resolutely to power against internal dissent and the open scorn and loathing directed his way by the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, some members of the opposition accused Saakashvili’s government of fabricating the coup plot for propaganda purposes. The mutiny was staged to deflect attention from dwindling street protests calling for Saakashvili’s resignation, they said.

Other observers downplayed that theory, and blamed Russian tampering.

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“It was not in Georgia’s interests to have a rebellion,” said Rondeli, the political analyst. “If Saakashvili can stage so many things, he’s the greatest stage director in the world.”

In Brussels, Rogozin scoffed at the accusations of Russian involvement.

“We have slowly begun to get accustomed to mad accusations by Georgian political and military authorities that if there is hail or thunderstorms, this is all Moscow’s work,” he told the Interfax news agency.

“Both the Georgian army and Georgian nation are undergoing complete destruction, and the reason is, again, Saakashvili’s mad policies.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Jinjikhashvili is a special correspondent.


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