Georgia says it halts army mutiny to disrupt NATO


Georgia said hundreds of rebellious soldiers surrendered Tuesday after a brief mutiny, but officials backed away from initial claims that Russia supported the uprising as part of a coup plot.

The government at first said that the soldiers rose up as part of a plan to disrupt NATO exercises that have angered Russia.

But Georgian authorities swiftly backed down from those allegations, and details of what they described as a daylong standoff at a tank battalion headquarters near the capital were shrouded in uncertainty. The reported mutiny deepened roiling political tension in a nation at the heart of persistent discord between Moscow and the West.

It came after weeks of street protests by opposition forces pressing for President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign over Georgia's disastrous war with Russia last August and allegations of misrule.

Russia denied any involvement, and Saakashvili's opponents dismissed the government's claims as a smokescreen to draw attention away from the effort to out him through peaceful protests.

Around midday, Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said he had been barred from entering a military base in Mukhrovani, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Tbilisi, and that the tank battalion's 500 personnel announced that they would refuse to follow orders. A number of civilians had joined the mutineers, he said.

Sikharulidze's remarks followed an announcement by the Interior Ministry that it had uncovered a Russian-supported plot to overthrow Saakashvili's government and had arrested suspected organizers including a former special forces commander.

The Interior Ministry later said the plotters were intent mainly on disrupting NATO military exercises set to begin Wednesday in Georgia and last through June 1.

Hours later, the Interior Ministry said the several hundred soldiers and officers at the base had handed over their weapons and surrendered after speaking to Saakashvili, who suggested that force could be used against them. They were bused to another military base for questioning, officials said.

Armored vehicles were later seen stationed around the Mukhrovani base.

In a televised address, Saakashvili said the mutiny was an isolated case and the situation nationwide was under control.

Saakashvili did not directly accuse Russia of involvement, but he claimed the mutiny was organized by former military officers with ties to Russian intelligence services.

"This is a blatant challenge to Georgia's stability and Constitutional security," he said.
An official in Saakashvili's office 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. The official, who spoke on condition he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said there was no evidence that the mutineers planned a coup attempt, or of Russian involvement.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Georgia's government was engaged in its "latest anti-Russian prank" and accused it of using Moscow as a bogeyman to blame for its internal problems.

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.

Opposition leaders said the claims of the planned coup were made up, with one calling it a "virtual coup" and another a "staged play."

"It's nothing but a tall tale, and we've heard so many of them already," said Georgy Khaindrava, a former Saakashvili ally.

Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili had said the suspected coup plot was organized by a former special forces commander, Georgy Gvaladze. He said Gvaladze and another former military commander, Koba Kobaladze, had been arrested and other suspects were being sought. Kobaladze, arrested Tuesday, denied any involvement.

Utiashvili also had said the ministry has a video of Gvaladze telling supporters that 5,000 Russian troops would come to support
the coup, and that it was planned for Thursday.

A ministry statement released later said Gvaladze was accused of organizing the military mutiny.

In his address, Saakashvili linked it to the planned NATO exercises.

Russia has sharply criticized the exercises, which it said would encourage Georgia to rebuild its military -- devastated in the five-day war with Russia that erupted amid persistent tension over Moscow's support for two separatist Georgian regions and Saakashvili's push for NATO membership.

NATO has stressed that the exercises are not threatening, and invited Russia to participate. But the plans have contributed to renewed tension even as Russia and NATO seek closer cooperation and Moscow and Washington try to mend their frayed relationship.

Russia and NATO last week restored ties that had been suspended since the August war, but Russia's NATO envoy said Tuesday that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was withdrawing from a planned meeting with the alliance later this month because of the exercises and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from NATO headquarters.

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

But Armenia, which is dependent on Russia for its economic survival, said Tuesday that its military was not taking part. Four other former Soviet republics -- Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Moldova -- and Serbia also decided to pull out, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported Tuesday.

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