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World News

Thousands rally in Georgian capital against vote

TBILISI (Reuters) - Around 35,000 people protested in the Georgian capital on Sunday against a presidential election they say leader Mikhail Saakashvili rigged.

Many demonstrators wore white neck scarves -- a symbol adopted by the opposition after the January 5 election -- and stamped their feet to keep warm in the snow coated central square.

“We will fight to the end,” Levan Berdzenishvili, one of the opposition leaders, told the peaceful crowd.

Saakashvili, a staunch U.S. ally who came to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, called the election in November after he ordered police to crush a five day long anti-government protest.

The former Soviet state’s central election commission awarded him over 53 percent of the vote, a narrow majority win which means he avoids a second round runoff against his nearest opponent Levan Gachechiladze who polled nearly 26 percent.

Western monitors approved the vote, which they said was competitive and broadly fair despite violations, but the opposition disagreed and said it was fixed. “We need justice and need a second round,” Berdzenishvili told the protesters.

Opposition leaders have been trying to galvanize support since the election by holding a series of protests, but the rallies have attracted smaller turnouts than hoped for and Sunday’s protest fell short of the 100,000 predicted.

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A mountainous country about the size of Ireland, Georgia sits at the centre of the Caucasus, a volatile region hosting a pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe, and is the scene of a power struggle between the United States and Russia.

Saakashvili has pursued an aggressively pro-Western agenda since sweeping to power, forcing through liberal economic policies and aiming for both NATO and European Union membership for the 4.5 million-strong state.

His reforms have attracted sizeable foreign investment and economic growth of up to 12 percent a year.

But many Georgians say they have missed out on the boom and accuse Saakashvili of running a corrupt, elitist government which has handled the economy poorly.

Analysts have said the election and the protests show how divided the Georgian population has become since electing Saakashvili president with around 96 percent support in 2004.

“Long live Levan,” the crowd shouted. “Long live Georgia.”

Saakashvili’s supporters say the oppositions’ accusation that the presidential vote was fixed is just the bleating of desperate opponents who know they have lost.

Writing by James Kilner in Moscow; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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