Georgia said Tuesday it had peacefully put down a mutiny at a military base on the eve of NATO exercises in the former Soviet republic, but accused Russia of backing an armed coup attempt.
Russia dismissed the accusation as “insane” and Georgia’s political opposition accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of staging the rebellion.
The mutiny led neighboring Armenia to pull out of the NATO exercises, due to start Wednesday.
Officials said the uprising at the Mukhrovani base 25 kilometers outside Tbilisi lasted several hours.
The government said in its statement that the “primary intent” of the mutiny had been to disrupt the planned NATO exercises.
“Other claims made by the organizers cannot be confirmed and are the subject of an ongoing investigation,” it said. The absence of any reference to Russia in the final statement was in stark contrast to earlier accusations.
Officials said more than 500 soldiers on the base at the time of the uprising were being questioned. Interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said that 13 civilians and seven military officers had been arrested.
Police were searching for two former military officers and one current officer and had offered a reward of 50,000 Georgian lari ($30,000) for information on their whereabouts, he said.
In a videotaped confession shown on Georgian television, the commander said one of the alleged organizers of the mutiny had offered to pay him to bring soldiers under his command to the capital.
“He said that people are waiting for us in Tbilisi, that they are waiting for the appearance of arms and that the opposition is waiting for us as well,” said the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Shota Gorgiashvili.
The accusations of Russian involvement reignited diplomatic tensions which have remained on edge since a five-day war between the neighbors last August.
Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said the “rebellion” was aimed at “disrupting NATO exercises and overturning the authorities militarily.”
The Georgian interior ministry said it had uncovered a plot for an armed uprising. “The plan was coordinated with Russia, at a minimum to disrupt NATO military exercises and at a maximum to organize a large-scale military rebellion in Georgia,” Utiashvili said.
“We have information that the rebels were in direct contact with Russians, that they were receiving orders from them, that they were receiving money from them.”
He said one of the suspects also claimed there had been a plot to assassinate Saakashvili but there was no evidence to back up that claim.
In a televised address, Saakashvili himself hinted at Russian involvement. “I demand from our northern neighbor that it refrain from provocations,” he said.
Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the Interfax news agency: “We have slowly grown accustomed to insane accusations from Georgia’s political and military leaders.”
Opposition leaders in Georgia also dismissed the alleged coup plot. “I have the impression this is nothing but a theatrical show staged by Saakashvili to distract people from the ongoing protests against his rule,” David Gamkrelidze of the New Rights party said.
Georgia’s NATO exercises have been condemned as provocative by Russia. The month-long war games are to involve at least 1,100 soldiers from more than a dozen NATO countries.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will not attend a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council this month following the alliance’s expulsion of two Russian diplomats, news agencies reported.
Lavrov had been expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Brussels talks.
Moscow later added that it would expel the director of NATO’s Information Office and a colleague from the country over the row.
Georgia’s defense ministry said there were no plans to cancel or postpone the exercises.