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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Georgian rebel leader quits power
Ajaria's leader Aslan Abashidze
Abashidze had ruled Ajaria for years
The rebel leader of Georgia's province of Ajaria has quit after weeks of tension with the government, President Mikhail Saakashvili has confirmed.

Aslan Abashidze flew out of the region with his family on a plane for Moscow following three hours of talks brokered by a senior Russian envoy.

Protesters in the regional capital Batumi celebrated the news.

There had been fears that Mr Abashidze's followers would resist any challenge to his long-standing rule.

I congratulate everyone... on the beginning of Georgia's unification
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president
Speaking live on TV, President Saakashvili said the rebel leader, in power since Soviet times, had "fled" and Ajaria was "free".

Earlier, he said he had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to grant Mr Abashidze political asylum and promised not to request his extradition despite his "grave crimes".

The BBC's Chloe Arnold reports from Tbilisi that the departure of Mr Abashidze is reminiscent of last year's Rose Revolution in Georgia when Mr Saakashvili led a peaceful uprising to overthrow the then leader, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Mr Abashidze's Ajaria was the last bastion of the former regime.

'Start of unification'

Mr Abashidze boarded the plane of Russia's envoy, Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov, at Batumi airport.

Russian television pictures of protesters in Batumi

One of Mr Abashidze's security guards said he had ordered his elite militia to disarm before leaving.

"Everyone is giving in their guns," the guard, named only as Gocha, was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. "It was his last instruction before he left."

The region's police force had already switched loyalty to the central government before news of Mr Abashidze's departure.

President Abashidze said a "new era" had started.

"I congratulate everyone on this victory, on the beginning of Georgia's unification. Georgia will be united," he said.

Two of the tiny Caucasus republic's other regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have been out of Tbilisi's control for years.

It was earlier announced by the government that Mr Saakashvili planned to visit Ajaria on Thursday.

Important region

Before Wednesday's talks, Mr Abashidze, 65, had said he meant to stay in Ajaria and that there was no "basis for confrontation".

map of Georgia, showing Ajaria
Population: 400,000; overall population of Georgia: 5 million
Depends on income from transited goods, its port shipping about 200,000 barrels of oil a day
Has run its own affairs for years, withholding tax payments from central government in Tbilisi
Ajarians are ethnic Georgians but mostly Muslim, unlike the majority in the Orthodox Christian state
He insisted that he had been "democratically elected by hundreds of thousands of people" while those protesting against him numbered, he said, only about 5,000.

The rebel leader, who maintained strong links with Russia during his rule, strongly opposed the Western-leaning President Saakashvili.

Mr Saakashvili had declared direct presidential rule over Ajaria on Wednesday, predicting the end of rebel rule in the province was only "hours" away.

He also offered Mr Abashidze safe passage abroad if he left office peacefully.

The crisis aroused the concern of Russia, Europe and the US, all of whom consider the Black Sea state to be of key strategic importance.

The US is backing the construction of a multi-billion dollar pipeline to transport Caspian Sea oil through the volatile region to the international market.

Russia retains a military base in Ajaria where there is a substantial ethnic Russian community.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili
"People are very happy and are looking forward to the future"

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