The Georgian government said it had put down a mutiny yesterday, in what it claimed was part of a coup plot backed by Russia on the eve of Nato exercises in the former Soviet republic. Moscow denied any involvement and Georgian opposition leaders called the day's events a hoax designed to distract attention from domestic discontent with the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgian officials sent tanks and armoured personnel carriers to the Mukhrovani base near the capital, Tbilisi, where a tank unit was said to be openly defying orders. The interior ministry said it had arrested individuals suspected of organising the mutiny and was questioning 500 soldiers.
The plotters were accused of wanting to derail Nato exercises due to start today, and possibly even to overthrow the government. "What has happened today is the end of that dark era when certain forces try to undermine Georgian statehood," said David Sikharulidze, the Defence Minister.
Reaction from the US was muted, with a Pentagon spokesman calling the mutiny an "isolated incident".
The Georgian government has a history of making dramatic claims which it then backs away from. A spokesman for the interior ministry later confirmed to The Independent there was "no direct evidence" of Russian involvement.
For several weeks, protesters in Georgia have been calling for the resignation of Mr Saakashvili, whose second term in office runs until 2013. The bulk of opposition leaders, including former close associates of the President, are refusing to negotiate with the government on any issue except his departure.
There is no doubt that Moscow, which fought a war with Georgia last summer, would also be delighted to see the back of the man whom Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has called a "political corpse". But Russia's envoy to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, yesterday called the claims of Russian involvement in the mutiny "totally insane".
The incident comes at a difficult time for Russia's relations with Nato, which appeared to be getting back on track after the 2008 war in South Ossetia. Last week, Russia and Nato renewed formal contacts for the first time since the war, but almost immediately two Russian diplomats in Brussels were accused by Nato of spying and expelled. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, yesterday pulled out of a meeting with Nato officials scheduled for this month in Brussels, the diplomatic expulsions and the forthcoming war games.
Moscow has also been furious about the Nato exercises, which could now end up being postponed. They will involve about 1,000 soldiers from more than a dozen countries. Nato insists the war games are not directed against Russia, but the Kremlin views Mr Saakashvili as an unstable warmonger and has condemned the exercises in the strongest terms.
Mr Rogozin said Nato would be better off holding its exercises in a "madhouse". "Georgia's military cannot properly receive their colleagues because they are rioting against their own President," Moscow's enovy to Nato said.
In an upping of rhetoric in the Caucasus, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee appeared to predict that a new military confrontation between Georgia and Russia was on the cards. He said the Nato exercises were essentially a way of retraining a battered Georgian army, and were timed to precede an election planned for the end of the month in South Ossetia.
Civilians in the breakaway state were making plans to evacuate in the event of renewed aggression from Georgia, he added, predicting that the events of last August could be repeated.
"Naturally, now we are prepared for this kind of eventuality," said Mr Kosachev. "And naturally, we are ready to stop this from happening much more actively and effectively than we were last August."