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Georgian Leader to Lift Economic Blockade on Renegade Province


Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili has pledged to lift the economic blockade on the autonomous province of Ajaria on Friday. He made the announcement after meeting with the province's leader on Thursday. The meeting apparently eased tensions that earlier in the week had both sides putting military forces on alert.

President Saakashvili met with Ajaria's leader, Aslan Abashidze, for nearly four hours in the province on Thursday. After the meeting, the president said the blockade would be lifted.

Mr. Saakashvili said the move was possible because all the questions that led to the misunderstanding had been resolved. As he put it, "there is no conflict between Ajaria and Georgia."

President Saakashvili also said he would select a special envoy to Ajaria, with the aim of resolving future disputes.

The president spoke to several hundred people outside the building where he met with Mr. Abashidze in the provincial capital, Batumi. People in the crowd shouted support for both men.

Mr. Abashidze made no public comment. But his office later released a statement carried by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that said the negotiations had been tough going.

Tensions flared after Mr. Saakashvili's motorcade was denied entry to the autonomous region on Sunday, forcing him to cancel plans to meet with voters ahead of next weekend's Georgian parliamentary elections.

The elections are a rerun of last year's widely disputed polls, which led to Georgia's Rose Revolution. The revolution ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, and Mr. Saakshvili won subsequent presidential elections.

The new Georgian leader said that under the accord reached Thursday, Ajaria would be expected to allow for free and open voting among its residents in the March 28 election.

The Council of Europe agreed on Thursday to dispatch a special mission to Ajaria to monitor the pre-election situation.

Both the United States and Russia had urged a peaceful resolution of the dispute, which had raised fears of another separatist war in Georgia, like the ones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s.

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