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Georgia's president threatens to arrest protesters
( 2003-11-17 10:08) (AFP)

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze threatened to use the full weight of the law against any opposition supporters who join a planned campaign of civil disobedience intended to force him to resign.

Shevardnadze issued his toughest warning yet as the protesters, changing tack after the biggest demonstration in a decade failed to dislodge him, said they would instead "paralyse" the government. They are protesting over a November 2 parliamentary election they claim was rigged.

"Such actions are punishable by law," Shevardnadze said. "I do not want for now to bring into action the measures laid out in law but if (the opposition) do not want to understand that and do not back down from their plans then we will have to act in accordance with the law."

"Everyone, including the president, the opposition and the government, must subordinate themselves to the law," he said in remarks quoted by Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

The Georgian president was speaking as the opposition leaders who have been at the forefront of a week of record protests in the capital, Tbilisi, met and agreed to redouble their efforts to force Shevardnadze out.

They decided to call off further protests in the capital until final results from the November 2 election are released. The deadline for that falls this Thursday.

In the meantime, they urged all Georgians to stop paying taxes and bills, to come out on strike and to block public officials from going about their work.

"We must all come together to once again say to Shevardnadze: 'We will no longer tolerate your rule,'" said opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, one of the leaders of the protests. "We will not stop and we will carry on until he leaves office."

The unrest since the election has been the worst in this former turbulent republic since Shevardnadze came to power a decade ago. It has been fuelled by general unhappiness with his rule, which has been marked by worsening poverty, corruption and the near-total breakdown in public services.

The fear among many is that the unrest could spill over into civil war. That happened in the early 1990s, when tanks and artillery batteries fought pitched battles in the streets of the capital. Shevardnadze himself warned last week the protests were "leading the country into civil war.

On Sunday, Shevardnadze said the situation was "complex but not without hope." He repeated an appeal to the opposition to enter into dialogue with him. The two sides met once but since then opposition leaders have refused to sit down with Shevardnadze, saying talks were futile.

"(Dialogue) is the only way to defuse the situation," he was quoted as saying. "We must have dialogue now, because in 10 days it will be too late. The radical opposition is demanding concessions but dialogue is not a one-way street. It means reaching compromise."

Two weeks to the day after the disputed parliamentary election, the final results had still not been declared. Interim figures gave the lead to Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc, even though pre-election opinion polls indicated its popularity was at rock bottom.

Opposition parties, and some international election observers, have said the vote was a travesty.

Shevardnadze -- backed up by riot police and special forces troops -- stood firm on Friday when some 15,000 protesters marched on the presidential administration. He has said he is determined to stay in office until 2005, when his term ends and he is due to retire. But the protesters refuse to go away.

The unrest has caused jitters among Western governments, who fear Georgia's political turmoil could destabilize the whole region, and disrupt work on a pipeline across the Caucasus which will export crude oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets.

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