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Opposition to launch last-ditch march in Georgia
( 2003-11-18 09:34) (Reuters)

Georgia's main opposition leader, who led the country's biggest protests in a decade last week, vowed Monday to launch a nationwide march on President Eduard Shevardnadze's offices this week to force him to quit.

Shevardnadze, 75, again dismissed calls for his resignation, saying he would not tolerate anti-constitutional acts and would instead recall parliament to resolve a stand-off which he said threatened to boil over into civil war.

A week of opposition protests, triggered by a disputed parliamentary election on November 2, has widened into calls for Shevardnadze's removal over corruption, poverty, misrule and the loss of two Georgian regions.

Respected in the West as a former Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War, Shevardnadze has looked shaken at times by the demands, but has refused to be bowed.

Western capitals and Moscow are watching the crisis with concern. Any unrest in Georgia could affect the whole, volatile southern Caucasus region where oil majors are building a pipeline to bring Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean coast.

"We are ready to start a march from all regions of Georgia on the chancellery (Shevardnadze's offices). We will bring people from all the regions of the country and we will, more than likely, start the march the day after tomorrow," opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili told a news conference.

"I am only ready to meet Shevardnadze in that instance when he leaves the chancellery."

Friday a protest outside parliament swelled to up to 20,000 -- the biggest in a decade in the mountainous country of five million.


But the veteran leader, renowned for his cunning as well as his unruly white hair, took the initiative Monday. He said he would call a meeting of a new parliament once the central election commission had published final election figures, and the parliament then would resolve the crisis.

"I think that when parliament starts...we will pass such laws to sort out what is lawful and what is not lawful...The new parliament, I think, will assess this situation (on the street) realistically," Shevardnadze told reporters.

The president holds a secure majority after he made an alliance with the leader of the so-far second placed party.

Preliminary results showed the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia! bloc leading with 20.6 percent, ahead of Revival Union with 18.7. The bloc led by Saakashvili was at 18.1 percent.

Shevardnadze, who has left his offices only to go home over the past few days, repeated his warning that protests and strikes could bring Georgia closer to chaos and bloodshed.

"It is a small step from a civil stand-off to civil war," Shevardnadze said in his weekly address to the nation.

But U.S. ambassador Richard Miles said he saw "no indication" so far that the stand-off would lead to bloodshed. Analysts said the political crisis was creeping closer to its final phase after Shevardnadze forced the opposition's hand.

"I think it is close to the end game...the first phase of active protests did not bring much to the opposition," Archil Gegeshidze, political analyst for Georgia's Foundation for Strategic and International Issues, told Reuters.

"I am sure they will try to stage another mass protest...but I do not think people are willing."

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