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Georgian Opposition Party Says Members Arrested

Nino Burjanadze
TBILISI -- A leading opposition party in Georgia says seven of its members have been arrested on March 23, with tensions mounting ahead of protests next month against President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Police declined to comment on the information from the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, saying a news conference would be held later in the day.

The party is led by Nino Burjanadze, a former ally of Saakashvili who co-authored the former Soviet state's 2003 Rose Revolution but then split with the president in early 2008, criticizing his record on democracy.

Burjanadze is among several opposition leaders to have announced a series of protests beginning on April 9 to demand Saakashvili's resignation following last year's disastrous military defeat by Russia in a five-day war.

Burjanadze said the seven party members were detained on the morning of March 23 on charges of illegal weapons possession. She said they included the party's regional head in the coastal region of Ajara and her husband's driver.

"The authorities have begun a campaign of terror in the country," Burjanadze told a news conference. "This government has little time to rule, so stay calm and don't be provoked."

The opposition accuses Saakashvili of falling short on promises made in 2003 to consolidate Georgian democracy.

The criticism has intensified since Tbilisi sent the army into Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region after months of escalating skirmishes, only to be crushed by a huge Russian counteroffensive.

Saakashvili has refused to resign, saying he was defending the country against Russian aggression.

The head of the Georgian intelligence service said on March 20 that Moscow was now trying to provoke internal disorder to overthrow the government, in comments the opposition say are part of a smear campaign ahead of the April protests.

Intelligence chief Gela Bezhuashvili told parliament that Moscow was planning "to remove the Georgian authorities through internal disorder and destabilisation."

Opposition protests against Saakashvili in November 2007 were crushed by police in a crackdown that shocked his Western backers. The government at the time accused the opposition of trying to stage a coup.