TBILISI, Georgia – President Bush addressed a huge and exuberant crowd here in Georgia’s Freedom Square, hailing the country’s Rose Revolution as a model for democracy movements around the world. Georgian authorities later told the Secret Service that someone in the crowd threw what was described as a hand grenade toward the stage and that it landed within 100 feet of where the president was speaking but did not explode, a Secret Service spokeswoman said.
Lorie Lewis, the spokeswoman, said Georgian authorities did not report the grenade-throwing incident until Bush was safely aboard Air Force One on the way back to the United States. Bush gave his speech, in which he credited Georgia for touching off a global “freedom movement,” apparently unaware of the possible attack.
“It was reported (that) the device described as a possible hand grenade hit an individual in the crowd and the device fell to the ground,” Lewis said Tuesday night in Washington. “It is reported a Georgian security official picked up the device, which did not detonate, and removed it from the area.”
No U.S. officials or journalists present at the event reported seeing any incident that matched the description.
U.S. authorities had not seen the device as of Tuesday night. The Secret Service has agents in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, working with the FBI, State Department and Georgian authorities to investigate the report, which had not been confirmed.
Guram Donadze, a spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry, at first denied a hand grenade was thrown close to the president, telling the Associated Press. “This is an absolute lie.” But he later said the secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, Gela Bezhuashvili, would make an announcement about the incident today.”
In his speech, Bush said the Georgian street revolt known as the Rose Revolution had touched off similar movements in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and Iraq.
“You’re making many important contributions to freedom’s cause, but your most important contribution is your example,” Bush told the crowd, speaking in bright sunshine. “Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world; freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.”
People waited for hours in the square for Bush to step onto the speaker’s platform, some of them dressed in red, white and blue to form a human U.S. flag. Others wore red and white for a counterpart Georgian flag.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili estimated that 150,000 people showed up; the White House put the number at 250,000.
Bush’s presence was a huge boost to Saakashvili, the 37-year-old architect of street protests that brought down the discredited government of Eduard Shevardnadze. “For the Georgian people, this is really a sign of strong solidarity with them,” Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said in an interview. “It’s one thing to know it. It’s another thing to see it.”
The visit irritated the Russia government, which views recent uprisings along its borders as an effort by the United States to extend its influence into Moscow’s historic zone of influence. When Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov learned of Bush’s itinerary weeks ago, he wrote a letter of complaint to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Bush took a gentle jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin during his speech and at a news conference here Tuesday when he endorsed Saakashvili’s plans to peacefully return the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control while granting them considerable autonomy. “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected,” Bush said, an implicit reference to Moscow’s longstanding support for the separatists.
But in a message calibrated to please Russia, Bush warned Georgia to respect the rights of its minority Abkhaz and Ossetian populations. Senior U.S. officials said before the trip that Bush planned to urge Saakashvili in private talks not to take provocative actions in the regions.