Tens of thousands expected for Georgia rally

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters were expected to take to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi for the start of mass protests aimed at ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Opposition leaders have vowed to rally at least 100,000 supporters and to continue protesting until Saakashvili resigns and calls early elections.

Both the government and opposition have promised to keep the demonstrations peaceful, but tensions are running high and some fear the protests could spark civil unrest.

Opposition to Saakashvili has been growing since Georgia’s war with Russia last year, with many, including some top former allies, accusing the president of mishandling the conflict.

Opponents also accuse Saakashvili of betraying the values of the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept him to power by persecuting critics, stifling the media and concentrating power in his own hands.

“There is going to be a huge amount of the population involved in the protest rallies,” said Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian envoy to the UN who broke with Saakashvili after the war and became a key opposition leader.

“We need to now see if the president is willing to listen to his own people, learn from the mistakes of the past and be adequate and respectful to their demands.”

Government supporters 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.

Georgia has suffered through repeated political violence since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Fears of new unrest grew ahead of the protests following the arrests of several opposition supporters on weapons charges, allegations of plots for armed attacks and a grenade attack on a police car.

The opposition has denied plans to use violence and accused authorities of seeking to undermine the protests by raising the spectre of unrest.

Opposition leaders say the threat of violence is not from within their ranks, but from the government cracking down on protesters. In 2007, riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, badly damaging Saakashvili’s reputation.

Seeking to allay fears of a repeat of that violence, Georgia’s interior minister said Wednesday that police would keep a low profile during the protests and would not interfere.

“There will be no direct confrontation between police and protesters,” Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told AFP. “We will have maximum tolerance.”

The deputy interior minister, Eka Zguladze, told journalists that 3,000 police, including riot police, would be mobilised for the protest but that they had no plans to intervene.

“We see ourselves as a European democracy and we are going to behave that way,” she said.

The influential head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, called Wednesday on the government and opposition to refrain from violence.

“I appeal to all of Georgia, I appeal to our authorities, the opposition, I appeal to the Georgian army not to use force under any circumstances,” he said in a sermon at Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.

The United States also called on both sides to avoid violence, with State Department spokesman Robert Wood saying Wednesday: “We urge the government of Georgia and all those participating in the April 9 protest rally to ensure that the demonstrations are peaceful and without violence.”

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