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Georgia's Saakashvili To Meet Opposition

Georgian police and opposition demonstrators clashed in Tbilisi on May 6.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has invited opposition leaders to direct talks on May 11 to try to end a month-long stand-off, government and opposition officials said.

Clashes on May 6 between police and protesters, a day after a brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base outside Tbilisi, have fuelled fears of wider anti-government unrest in the country, which is hosting NATO military exercises to the consternation of neighboring Russia.

The opposition has been protesting since April 9, blocking roads in the capital and demanding the 41-year-old president resign over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.

"The president is going to meet them tomorrow at 2 p.m. [1000 GMT]," a senior government official told Reuters on May 10 on condition of anonymity.

Asked if the opposition had been called to talks with Saakashvili, an opposition leader, who declined to be named, said, "You are right."

Parliament speaker David Bakradze met an opposition delegation on May 8 after Georgia's influential Orthodox Church warned the situation was "in danger of exploding." But the opposition said it wanted to see the president in person.

The government is offering talks on reforms to address accusations that Saakashvili has monopolized power, undermined the judiciary and repressed free media since coming to power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution."

The offer is testing opposition unity, splitting an alliance of more than a dozen parties between those who say they are ready to discuss the government proposals, and others who insist they will only talk about Saakashvili's orderly departure.

Some 20,000 rallied outside parliament on May 9. Turnout was far higher than usual, to mark exactly one month since the campaign began.

Analysts say the opposition lacks the organisation, numbers or unity to unseat Saakashvili. But they have managed to force the government to the negotiating table.

Diplomats say the West, which poured billions of dollars into Georgia after the war, is pressing Saakashvili to follow through with promised reforms, or face continued street protests and the risk of unrest.

Protesters clashed with police on May 6 at a police base in Tbilisi, injuring 28 people. The West is watching closely for a possible repeat of a November 2007 police crackdown against the last peaceful mass demonstrations against Saakashvili.

The president has come under renewed pressure since last year's war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.

The tank base mutiny, when authorities say commanders refused orders, has raised questions over the loyalty Saakashvili commands within the military.

The war slammed the brakes on Georgia's bid for membership of NATO, which Russia fiercely opposes as an encroachment on what Moscow considers its traditional sphere of influence.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on May 10 that NATO's decision to launch month-long exercises in Georgia despite such turmoil was a signal of support for the government in Tbilisi.

"It cannot be seen as anything but support for the ruling regime," Putin said in an interview with Japanese media.