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Georgians Mark Independence Day With Rally

Opposition supporters march from Boris Paichadze Stadium to the Sameba cathedral in the Georgian capital on May 26.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of opposition supporters have rallied in Georgia on Independence Day to demand the resignation of the president, whose government canceled a military parade to avoid confrontation.

Protesters waving white ribbons packed the 60,000-capacity national football stadium, in what appeared to be the largest rally since the opposition launched daily demonstrations against President Mikheil Saakashvili six weeks ago.

The government last week called off a traditional military parade in Tbilisi to avoid a clash. Protest organizers led supporters in a march to the main Holy Trinity Cathedral instead of the parliament as originally planned.

The head of the influential Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, urged dialogue.

"It has become a rule in Georgia -- the first two presidents were ousted, and what did we get from that? Would it not be better to listen to each other, we should be able to listen to each other," he told the packed cathedral.

Tensions are running high in the country of 4.5 million people on Russia's southern border, where Moscow and the West are competing for influence over oil and gas transit routes.

Brief clashes between police and protesters in early May, and a failed mutiny at a tank base outside Tbilisi the same week deepened fears of a wider antigovernment rebellion.

Former Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze told the rally: "We will not take a single step back. All we demand is the president's resignation."

Saakashvili has ruled out resigning. He marked Georgian Independence Day -- reinstated with independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 -- at Tbilisi's military cemetery.

"With one hand we fight to free our land from the occupiers, and with the other we build our country," he said in a speech.

The U.S. and European Union on May 25 urged the government and opposition "to end the current stalemate on the streets and begin negotiations immediately and without preconditions on a new program of reforms to invigorate Georgia's democracy."

The government says it is offering reforms to provide a fairer distribution of power. The opposition says it has heard such promises before and wants Saakashvili to go.