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Georgian President Declares State of Emergency, Flees Capital - 2003-11-22

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has declared a state of emergency, after tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators stormed parliament. President Shevardnadze was rushed from the building by armed guards, as Tbilisi's streets erupted into chaos and then euphoria.

President Shevardnadze says the opposition's storming of parliament Saturday amounts to a coup, and that his government will exercise all rights, including the use of force, to restore calm.

President Shevardnadze also vows that the perpetrators of the day's events will be punished. But it is unclear how he plans to carry out the threat. An estimated 30,000 demonstrators took part in the protests.

Mr. Shevardnadze also said he is happy there has been no bloodshed up to this point, as had been widely feared after three weeks of angry protests.

But the situation is far from settled, with reports that one of the political leaders of Georgia's opposition has claimed the post of interim president.

The opposition says what it calls Georgia's "velvet revolution" is complete - a reference to the peaceful overthrow of communist Czechoslovakia's government in 1989.

The opposition crowds pushed their way through hundreds of police and interior ministry troops ringing parliament to take the building midday Saturday.

The streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, quickly descended into chaos, as armed interior ministry troops rushed President Shevardnadze to safety outside the city.

The fast-breaking turn of events prevented President Shevardnadze from addressing the inaugural session of the new parliament as scheduled. He was rushed out the back, just as hundreds of opposition protesters rushed in, overturning desks and chairs, and seizing the speaker's podium.

Georgia's political opposition has staged three weeks of protests to call for the November 2 parliamentary election to be annulled and for President Shevardnadze to resign.

The leader of Georgia' s main opposition party - the National Movement - says nothing short of new elections will do. Meanwhile, President Shevardnadze vows to stay on.

Saturday's demonstration, which later turned into a celebratory street party, is the largest mass gathering to date.

Despite the opposition's claims of victory, analysts warn Georgia's most difficult days may still lie ahead.