Opposition protests run out of steam

Thousands of protestors took to the streets for a third day in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Saturday, calling on President Mikheil Saakashvili to step down. But their number has reportedly fallen compared with last week's marches.


AFP - Several thousand protesters rallied in the Georgian capital Saturday for a third day of demonstrations against President Mikheil Saakashvili, but the opposition-led movement appeared to be dwindling.

At least 4,000 people protested outside Georgia's parliament in the afternoon, according to estimates by an AFP reporter, before two groups of several hundred broke off to march on the offices of the president and state broadcaster, blocking city streets.

The number of protesters had fallen significantly from some 60,000 who rallied on Thursday and 25,000 on Friday -- the biggest demonstrations against Saakashvili's rule since a war with Russia last August.

Organisers have vowed to continue protests until Saakashvili resigns, but called for a one-day break from demonstrations on Sunday, when Orthodox Christian Georgia marks the beginning of the week before Easter.

Opposition leader Koba Davitashvili of the People's Party told the crowd at the parliament there would be no budging in demands for the president to depart.

"There will be no dialogue with Saakashvili. Dialogue is possible on only one issue: his resignation," he said.

Despite the smaller numbers, protesters insisted their movement was gaining momentum.

"Pressure is mounting on Saakashvili. Even if we are less at the rally today, the number of people is not the most important thing. Even if there are only 20 people here, he must listen to us," said Levan Chelidze, 45.

Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze called on demonstrators to return Monday for a fresh wave of rallies.

"We will stay here until the president resigns," said Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament.

Protesters announced a campaign of civil disobedience Friday after Saakashvili offered talks with the opposition but rejected calls to step down.

Some in the wide coalition of opposition forces organising the protests said they were ready to sit down with the president, but others said there was nothing to discuss but his resignation.

Opponents accuse Saakashvili of mishandling the conflict with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since he came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, a peaceful public uprising.

Both the government and opposition have promised to keep these latest demonstrations peaceful, but tensions are running high and some fear the protests could turn violent.

Police have kept a low profile during the rallies and made no moves to interfere with protesters.

Security officials are keen to avoid a repeat of events in November 2007 when riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, damaging Saakashvili's reputation as a democratic reformer.

Government loyalists say Saakashvili continues to enjoy widespread support and that the opposition is looking to overturn the results of a snap presidential poll last year in which he won a second five-year term.


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