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Adjar Leader's Exit Allows Georgia To Avert Crisis

Abashidze reportedly backed down 6 May 2004 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced early today that Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze had left the rebellious region following late-night scrambling to avoid a potentially bloody confrontation in Georgia's Adjar Autonomous Republic.

The move came after both sides had hardened their stances, with a confrontation between Abashidze and forces loyal to the central government appearing increasingly likely.

Saakashvili told a televised news briefing in the early morning hours today that Abashidze "fled" the region. Initial reports were unclear about Abashidze's destination, but President Saakashvili said earlier in the day that he had discussed offers of asylum for Abashidze with authorities in the United States and Russia.

Adjar opposition leader Tamaz meanwhile told a rally of an estimated 10,000 people rallying outside a university in the largest Adjar city of Batumi that Abashidze had "resigned."

Abashidze -- long at odds with Saakashvili -- had been holding talks with former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who had undertaken a mediation mission between the two sides.

Abashidze had been offered an ultimatum yesterday to "obey" the central Georgian government or risk "possible bloodshed." Abashidze has ruled as Adjar president for more than a decade, but the ranks of demonstrators urging him to step down had increased in the face of threats from Tbilisi to restore central Georgian authority. Police officers and elected officials began deserting Abashidze's ranks as those protests gained momentum.

But as late as yesterday afternoon, Abashidze had vowed to stay on.

Saakashvili had also spelled out the details of his offer of immunity and his plans to resolve the crisis in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "In order to avoid shedding Georgian blood, I am prepared to guarantee full immunity and safety for Aslan Abashidze and his family members. I am prepared to ensure their security inside Georgia or abroad, should they decide to leave Georgia and go to any other country of the world," Saakashvili told RFE/RL. "I spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin twice today. I also spoke to the White House in Washington. I asked the Russian president -- and this request is still being considered, there is no final answer yet -- to give political asylum to Abashidze, and I assured him that we would not seek his extradition."

"We are not going to take away Adjaria's autonomy. But in the transitional period, I am going to impose direct presidential rule in Adjaria," Saakashvili said. "There will be an interim council appointed to govern the Adjar Autonomous Republic until local elections are held, as soon as possible, and new authorities, which Adjaria's people want, are elected."

Earlier, Georgia Security Council head Vano Merabishvili gave an ultimatum to Abashidze, saying he must "obey" Saakashvili and "avoid possible bloodshed."

(Compiled from wire reports and reports from RFE/RL's Georgian Service.)