Violent clashes erupt between protesters and police as thousands demonstrate outside legislative assembly in Tbilisi.
Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets in several Georgian cities, calling for justice over a brutal police crackdown on a mass anti-Russia protest.
The rallies on Friday in the capital, Tbilisi, as well as the cities of Kutaisi and Batumi came a day after hundreds of people were injured when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during a demonstration against a Russian legislator’s address in Georgia‘s parliament.
Many wore a red eye patch in support of two protesters who lost their eyesight after being hit on Thursday by rubber bullets in Tbilisi.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Tbilisi, said tensions were running high on Friday.
“The violence was inflicted on so many people. Although the government is saying that the protesters attempted to storm Parliament yesterday, many people believe that the response was completely over the top,” he said, adding that at least 240 people were injured.
“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that police deliberately fired [rubber bullets] in the faces and in the groin areas of some of those protesters and journalists, as well.”
The crowd on Friday primarily called for the resignation of Georgia’s Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, but also demanded snap parliamentary elections and the ruling party leader’s removal from power.
“We will do everything to oust this government that serves Russia,” said 32-year-old lawyer Demetre Saladze, who was among the protesters on Friday.
Engineer Vakhtang Kiriya, 28, vowed that the demonstrators would make the government answer for the actions of the police.
“We will fight until [the ruling party leader Bidzina] Ivanishvili and his team flee Georgia,” he said. “They should get ready to board their jets.”
The protests have already forced the resignation of the parliament speaker, Irakli Kobakhidze, who was found responsible for inviting the Russian delegation and allowing Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov to chair a forum of legislators from predominantly Christian Orthodox countries.
“[People are angry at] how the authorities allowed the Russian delegation to come to Georgia when there are no diplomatic relations between these countries and for them to come into the parliament and talk and the kind of language they used, as well,” Forestier-Walker said.
Anti-Russian sentiments run high in Georgia as Russian troops occupy about 20 percent of the Georgian territory, including breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
In 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a brief but bloody war over South Ossetia.
Following the conflict, Russia recognised the independence of both separatist regions.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier” and suggested Moscow had helped trigger the protests, while the Kremlin on Friday blamed radical Georgian politicians for what it called “an anti-Russian provocation”.
“Russia is our enemy and occupier. The fifth column it manages may be more dangerous than open aggression,” Zurabishvili posted on her Facebook page.
Responding to the anti-Russian protests, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Friday, banning Russian airlines from flying to Georgia in response to the outcry against the visiting Russian delegation.
“From July 8, 2019, Russian airlines are temporarily banned from undertaking flights from the territory of the Russian Federation to the territory of Georgia,” said the decree published on the Kremlin website.
The Kremlin also said it was recommending travel agencies suspend tours to Georgia from Russia.