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Georgian leader says situation calm after troop mutiny - 2


(Adds details on arrests in paras 7-8, battalion commander's confession in paras 17-18)

TBILISI, May 5 (RIA Novosti) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili assured the nation in a televised address that the situation in the country was under control following a mutiny at an army base outside the capital on Tuesday.

The Interior Ministry earlier said the rebellion at the Mukhrovani tank base, 20 km from Tbilisi, was backed by Russia, as part of a plot to overthrow the Georgian leadership. Moscow denied the claim.

"The Georgian state did not yield to this provocation from Russia. This is an isolated incident - it did not spread to other military units, and the situation is under control," the president said.

Saakashvili said he personally negotiated with the rebel soldiers, and persuaded them to give themselves up to police.

He said the rebellion was aimed at "creating unrest in Georgia, to damage the country's security and democratic system."

The president accused Russia of conspiring with former Georgian military officials to stage the rebellion. The Interior Ministry said the mutiny was also aimed at disrupting NATO-led exercises due to start in the country on Wednesday.

According to the ministry, 13 civilians were arrested and some 500 military personnel are being questioned in connection with the mutiny.

In addition, the ministry also said a Georgian national was arrested on charges of plotting the assassination of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

A Kremlin official contacted by RIA Novosti declined to comment in detail on Saakashvili's allegations, but said the Georgian leader "needs to see a doctor".

A senior Russian security official called the reports a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on the government amid ongoing protests against Saakashvili.

Opposition response

The opposition, which has been leading protests in Tbilisi for nearly a month demanding Saakashvili's resignation, called the mutiny a "theatrical show" staged by Saakashvili.

"What we saw looked like a one-man theater show - one person giving specific names and painting an apocalyptic picture of men returning to Georgia from exile to kill long-serving politicians," David Gamkrelidze, an opposition leader, said.

Salome Zourabishvili, a former foreign minister who now leads the Georgia's Way party, called the government's reports "virtual reality." The Republican Party warned the government against "resorting to such methods to prevent the country from collapse."

However, the opposition said they had suspended pickets of the country's main highways, which were due to start on May 8.

Battalion's 'demands'

The rebel battalion said in a statement earlier circulated by local media that they were not planning any military action, and urging for dialogue between the government and the opposition.

"Watching the country being torn apart by the current standoff is unbearable. There is a possibility of this standoff turning violent," battalion commander Col. Mamuka Gorgishvili was quoted as saying.

However, in a public confession, which was televised later on Tuesday, Gorgishvili said he received orders from the National Guard battalion commander Koba Otanadze to move 24 tanks under his command toward Tbilisi to support opposition rallies in the capital.

"Otanadze told me that I must leave the base with my battalion and armored vehicles and move toward Tbilisi. I asked him why we should go to Tbilisi and he said that the people and the opposition were waiting for the arrival of combat vehicles to start a public uprising," the former commander said.

TV footage earlier on Tuesday showed heavy armored vehicles moving toward the base, and Saakashvili urging the personnel to surrender. The negotiations also involved Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Police have barred reporters from approaching the base.

NATO-led drills

Saakashvili said Russia was trying to use the mutiny to target the upcoming NATO-led exercise as well as an EU summit in Prague designed to boost ties with ex-Soviet republics.

"Before these events, Russia tripled its military presence in Georgia in a bid to provoke unrest, which was aimed against democracy and Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic bodies," he said.

The Defense Ministry insisted that the schedule of the NATO drills would not be changed because of the incident.

The Interior Ministry said Russia's Black Sea Fleet was put on high alert after the rebellion. The Russian Navy denied the report, but border authorities said security had been tightened on the Georgian border.

Russia has criticized Western military alliance's planned drills in Georgia, saying that in view of last August's war over South Ossetia the exercises constitute "an open provocation" that could have negative repercussions.

The war followed Georgia's offensive on pro-Russian South Ossetia. The conflict is widely believed to have set back Georgia's bid to join NATO, which has been fiercely opposed by Moscow.

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