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Georgian Official Gives Adjar Leader Deadline

5 May 2004 -- Georgian Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili said on state television today that Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, has a deadline of "two or three hours to obey" President Mikheil Saakashvili and "avoid bloodshed."

"I want to warn everyone, all armed people and the authorities who are still on Aslan Abashidze's side that the hours of his regime are numbered. You have approximately two to three hours to come over to the side of the Georgian people and obey the Georgian president in order to avoid possible bloodshed," Merabishvili said.

Merabishvili also said Saakashvili and Abashidze are having negotiations on the telephone concerning security guarantees in case Abashidze decides to step down. Abashidze's spokeswoman, Tamara Gudava, said today that Abashidze will make a televized statement tonight but will not resign.

Meanwhile, demonstrations are reported to be continuing today in the streets of Batumi, the capital of Georgia's restive Adjaria region, after a night in which some 2,000 demonstrators defied a curfew to protest against Abashidze.

Crowds of protesters holding candles and Georgian flags streamed through the center of Batumi, in scenes which Georgian television said were reminiscent of the "Rose Revolution" that toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze at the end of last year.

The Batumi demonstrators chanted their allegiance to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has vowed to face down Abashidze: "Misha [Saakashvili]! Misha! Misha!"

Saakashvili has demanded that Abashidze disarm paramilitaries and recognize the authority of the Georgian central government in Tbilisi by 12 May. There have been no signs of compliance so far from Abashidze.

Abashidze ordered the curfew and imposed a state of emergency in Adjaria following protests yesterday, which were aggressively dispersed by security forces.

This time, despite reports of isolated gunfire, no major violence or injuries were registered in the overnight protests. One man in the crowd described his motive for taking part in the demonstration: "[We want] freedom, freedom for our children, nothing more. The main thing is that there should be freedom in Adjaria, and that's all."

A woman, alluding to the Abashidze family's long years of authoritarian rule in the region, put it this way: "I wish for my people to live in a civilized way. We should not live like it is the 17th century. We are people of the 21st century."

In Tbilisi, Saakashvili called on Adjaria's security forces not to carry out Abashidze's orders. AP quoted the commander of a police division in Batumi, Akhmed Devadze, as saying 175 policemen have crossed over to the protesters.

By this morning, senior Georgian government officials had traveled to the Black Sea port city of Poti, near the administrative border with Adjaria, to voice their support for the anti-Abashidze protests. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was among them. "My colleagues and I have come here today to show our support for the brave and valiant people in Adjaria who were not afraid of truncheons or intimidated by threats and who yesterday demonstrated another fine moment in Georgian history," he said.

Georgian State Minister Giorgi Khaindrava, also speaking today in Poti, repeated the Georgian government's demand that Abashidze leave office. "What is happening in Batumi clearly shows the attitude of the Adjar people toward Aslan Abashidze, not to speak about attitudes in the rest of Georgia," he said. "I think his hours are numbered. He has very little time left to take the only correct decision, which is to leave."

Meanwhile, Georgian Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili claims the oil terminal in Batumi has been mined by Adjar authorities. He says the explosives could cause massive destruction if detonated. Bezhuashvili did not say how he had obtained the information.

(David Kakabadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)

(compiled from wire reports)

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