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Georgian President Ready to Meet Opposition as Much as Necessary to End Protests


Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze says he is ready to meet the political opposition as many times as necessary to end demonstrations that have extended into a second week. The demonstrators allege fraud in recent parliamentary elections and call for the president's ouster.

Nearly 3,000 demonstrators have converged outside Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi to continue protests that began after last week's parliamentary elections. Political opposition and Western rights groups allege the elections were tarnished by fraud and vote rigging.

Opposition leaders say they will continue their protest until their demands for the president's resignation or the annulment of the results of the parliamentary elections.

Mr. Shevardnadze refuses to resign, and says only a court can annul the results of the elections.

Before leaving on a one-day visit to Batumi in Western Georgia, Mr. Shevardnadze again expressed his readiness to meet with the opposition to reach a peaceful outcome to the standoff.

In Batumi, President Shevardnadze met the head of the opposition Revival Union party, which is running a close second to Mr. Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc. Head of the Revival Union, Aslan Abashidze, agrees with the president on many law-and-order issues, and both are seen as possible allies against other opposition parties.

Final results from the November second parliamentary elections have still not been declared. But the Commission's latest results give Mr. Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia the lead, with 21 percent of the vote. The Revival Union follows in second place with 20 percent and the opposition National Movement bloc is in third with 18 percent.

Georgia's Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili says he is transferring a contingent of his security forces to the capital, Tbilisi, but denied this is a move against the demonstrators. The minister says the security forces are being brought home from Georgia's volatile Pankisi Gorge for the winter.

Neighboring Russia has expressed concern about the tensions unfolding on its southern flank. President Vladimir Putin spoke with Mr. Shevardnadze by phone Sunday to offer Moscow's full support.

Western governments and investors are also keeping a close eye on Georgia, where construction is underway on an oil pipeline to move Caspian oil from neighboring Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean Sea, by way of Georgia to Turkey.

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