Tens of thousands rally to renew calls for Saakashvili's resignation

Some 20,000 protesters gathered outside the parliament building in the Georgian capital Tbilisi as opposition leaders pushed for talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili following a month of demonstrations demanding his resignation.


AFP - Thousands of protesters rallied in the Georgian capital Saturday as opposition leaders pressed for a meeting with President Mikheil Saakashvili after a month of demonstrations demanding his ouster.

In a show of strength on the one-month anniversary of the start of protests, about 20,000 opposition supporters gathered outside parliament in central Tbilisi, calling for the president to resign by chanting "Misha Go!"

The protest came after the government and opposition leaders on Friday failed to make any progress in resolving the political stand-off during their first talks since protests began.

"The whole nation is standing here after 30 days so that the self-proclaimed president recognises that there is a crisis in this country, that there is a very serious crisis," opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili told the crowd.

Clashes this week between police and protesters and a brief bloodless military mutiny raised fears of instability in Georgia, a former Soviet republic which is currently hosting controversial NATO military exercises that have infuriated neighbouring Russia.

Opposition leaders called for an urgent meeting with Saakashvili, whom they accuse of mishandling last year's war with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since coming to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.

"If we do not receive a response today and this meeting does not happen in the nearest day or two it simply means that the president does not really want dialogue," opposition leader Nino Burjanadze told journalists.

Other opposition leaders were less categorical.

"It should happen in the nearest time, I do not think we should create artificial barriers by giving ultimatums," said former UN envoy Irakli Alasania, who is considered a voice of moderation in the opposition.

"We are ready to listen to the government and present our positions and arguments," he said.

The European Union on Saturday hailed the start of talks as an important step forward despite the failure to reach any agreement.

"It was a very, very positive development that this meeting was held yesterday and it is important that it be followed up," the EU's envoy to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, told journalists before a meeting with opposition leaders.

The number of protesters has steadily dwindled since a peak of some 60,000 during the first days of demonstrations but Saturday's rally attracted the largest numbers in recent days.

The rally ended after several hours but a few dozen protesters remained late Saturday in mock jail cells the opposition has set up outside parliament, blocking traffic in the centre of the capital.

Opposition leaders offered to hold talks Thursday following the clashes. They insisted they were still demanding Saakashvili's resignation but said they were ready to listen to any ideas the president has for bringing the country out of political crisis.

Officials said the clashes broke out after opposition supporters tried to storm a main police station and police used truncheons to repel protesters trying to climb a fence around the building.

The opposition said police had attacked protesters and fired rubber bullets, which officials denied. Police said nobody was seriously injured.

Tensions have increased in recent days but officials have vowed there would be no repeat of events in November 2007 when riot police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning