Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 14:40 UK

Georgians rally against president


Thousands at Georgia opposition rally

Thousands of Georgians have gathered outside parliament saying they will not disperse until the president resigns.

Protesters, numbering up to 60,000, blamed President Mikhail Saakashvili for defeat against Russia in August's war and said he had stifled democracy.

The opposition alleged that dozens of members were arrested before the rally - a claim denied by the government.

President Saakashvili urged Georgians to show unity and "work day and night... to finally liberate Georgia".

He was speaking at a ceremony in the capital, Tbilisi, to commemorate the day, 20 years ago, when 20 people died as Soviet Red Army troops crushed a popular protest in the same place.

Georgian opposition protesters in Tbilisi

"It is absolutely clear that no matter what opinions we may hold and how we may differ from each other, we have one homeland," he said.

He linked the events of 1989 to those of last August, when Georgia fought a brief war against Russia.

"This is what these people sacrificed themselves for under Russian tank tracks, and what our fighters sacrificed themselves for last August... freedom and a united Georgia," he said.

The BBC's Tom Esslemont in Tbilisi says opposition leaders have deliberately chosen this poignant date for their demonstrations.

Estimates of the crowd range between 50,000 and 60,000, news agencies reported. Organisers had expected up to 100,000, AFP news agency said.

The mood was calm as protesters gathered outside parliament on Thursday morning, and there was little sign of a police presence, our correspondent says.

This is the most organised protest since the war with Russia, he adds, and it is one that opposition leaders are likely to be pleased with.

Soviet tanks in Tbilisi, April 1989

Earlier, van-loads of riot police had been seen arriving at Tbilisi's parliament square.

Opposition leaders have appealed to the government not to use violence to break up mass protests.

Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up the last mass protests in Tbilisi in November 2007.

Claims of plot

"I don't think that it should be a surprise that after we lost 20% of Georgian territory and have no democracy in the country, we are asking for the resignation of the president," said Nino Burjanadze.

Ms Burjanadze was formerly an ally of Mr Saakashvili but now leads the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party.

The party said 60 members, who had been planning to attend the demonstrations, were arrested overnight.

An interior ministry spokesman said that was "not true".

Our correspondent says both opposition and government figures have accused one another of planning to use violence in Thursday's rallies.

Video footage was recently released by the government allegedly showing a group of opposition supporters planning a disturbance at the protests.

The government accused the men of trying to provoke the government into using force.


Undercover video filmed by Georgian police

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said the government would "not intervene or impede members of the protest in expressing their will freely" but indicated that the authorities could take action if they deemed it necessary.

"My position does not give me the liberty to exclude anything, but my mood tells me there will not be violence," he told Reuters.

"There is no chance of a revolution in Georgia."

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