U.S. President George Bush told a cheering crowd of tens of thousands in Georgia that their country proved to the world that oppressed people could rise up and claim freedom. Mr. Bush called the former Soviet republic a "beacon of liberty" for the entire world.
|President George W. Bush, right, waves as he stands on stage with Laura Bush, center, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, after speaking in Freedom Square|
The crowd, by some estimates at least 100,000, began gathering hours before President Bush arrived in Tbilisi's Freedom Square. Many carried American and Georgian flags. Mr. Bush, appearing with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, received an enthusiastic welcome.
It is the same square where thousands of Georgians gathered in 2003 to demand the ouster of then-President Eduard Shevardnandze. In 1989, when it was called Lenin Square, Soviet forces violently broke up protests.
President Bush told the crowd, "Under Lenin's steely gaze, thousands of Georgians prayed and sang and demanded their independence. The Soviet Army crushed that day of protest but they could not crush the spirit of the Georgian people."
Mr. Bush also thanked Georgia for sending troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and for not withdrawing those troops despite the ongoing insurgency.
[Hours after that address, U.S. Secret Service officials said Georgian authorities informed them that a device described as a possible hand grenade was thrown within 30 meters of the stage. They say the device did not explode and that they are investigating the incident.]
Earlier, Mr. Bush held a news conference with President Saakashvilli. The U.S. president said that during his visit to Moscow this week, he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin about Georgia’s insistence that Moscow close two remaining Russian bases in the country, in compliance with a 1999 demand by the Organization for Security and Co-operation In Europe. "He reminded me that there was an agreement in place -- the 1999 agreement. He said the Russians want to work with the government to fulfill the obligations and terms of that agreement."
Georgia said last month that Russia had agreed to close its bases by 2008. But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov later said Moscow would need at least four years to complete the withdrawal.