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Huge crowds mass in Georgia against president
TBILISI (Reuters) - Up to 70,000 people demanding early elections protested on Friday against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in the biggest show of unrest since the peaceful revolution that swept him to power four years ago.
Opposition supporters waving banners and wearing white bandanas massed in front of Georgia's parliament building and along main avenues of the capital Tbilisi. Some brought a mock gallows with Saakashvili's effigy hanging from it.
"We want our people to be the master in the country, not slaves," said Shalva Natelashvili, one of the leaders of the opposition bloc. "We need a government which will serve its people and not vice versa as it is now."
The protests were mostly good-natured and police kept a low profile, although occasional scuffles broke out among the crowd near the parliament building.
Protesters vowed to stay on the streets until the government, a key U.S. ally, met their demands for early elections, changes in polling rules and the release of what they term political prisoners.
Billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has backed the opposition movement, told the crowd: "Let's do our best to make the government start a dialogue and finally to choose a government which will serve the people."
Parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze met opposition leaders but they reached no agreement and decided to continue dialogue. By night-fall, about 5,000 people remained outside parliament.
There was no immediate response from Saakashvili, who cancelled a trip to a provincial town and stayed in the capital.
"No government which respects itself will make decisions in the face of ultimatums. Elections should be held in the stipulated terms," Nino Burjanadze, a Saakashvili ally, told reporters after the meeting opposition leaders.
A Reuters reporter estimated that about 70,000 people turned out for the rally. The size of the crowds was reminiscent of the climax of the Rose Revolution, a wave of protests that forced the then president, Eduard Shevardnadze, to resign.
Irakly Okruashvili, a former close Saakashvili ally who sparked the protests when he accused the president of massive corruption and plotting a murder, was not present.
His lawyer said he had been deported the previous day to Western Europe; the government said he had left to seek medical treatment. Okruashvili's exact whereabouts were unclear.
Local police had tried to block some demonstrators traveling to the protest from western Georgia, puncturing car tires, blocking tunnels and preventing passengers from boarding trains, opposition leaders said.
The authorities said they were respecting the protesters' right to gather. U.S. President George W. Bush has said Georgia is a "beacon of democracy".
Saakashvili, who wants to take Georgia into NATO and the European Union, frequently flaunts his democratic credentials.
But critics say that is a facade that masks Saakashvili's intolerance of dissent and some human rights abuses, although not on the same scale as in some other ex-Soviet states.
The opposition campaign does not question Saakashvili's pro-Western stance. But it has attacked his authoritarianism and has tapped into discontent that living standards are not rising as fast as many Georgians had hoped after the revolution.
They want parliamentary elections to be brought forward to early 2008 from late next year, so as to win the vote and use their majority to abolish the presidency.
"I came to Tbilisi to show our president that many people are not satisfied with him and his government," protester Iuza Samkharadze said. "When he was elected as president, I compared him to St. George (the patron saint), but he has disappointed us very much since that time."
The United States and European Union have a stake in Saakashvili's rule because they backed the revolution and have since supported the Georgian leader in his bitter quarrels with neighboring Russia.
(Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili)
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