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Georgia's President to Meet with Leader of Adzharia Province - 2004-03-17

Georgia's new President Mikhail Saakashvili will meet with the leader of the renegade Adzharia province Thursday in a bid to defuse a crisis over the region's separatist ambitions.

The meeting was arranged after five hours of talks between Georgia's parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and Adzharia's leader Aslan Abashidze in Batumi.

After the meeting, Ms. Burjanadze said she didn't think the differences between the two sides will be resolved immediately, but said she hopes Thursday's talks will start the process of negotiations.

Tensions between the central government and the fiercely independent leader of Adzharia broke into the open over the weekend when armed men loyal to Mr. Abashidze blocked the Georgian president from driving into Adzharia.

The president responded by accusing Mr. Abashidze of trying to split from Georgia, putting Georgia's armed forces on alert and imposing a trade blockade on Batumi's busy port and oil terminal. The tension was felt in Moscow, which maintains a military base in Adzharia and tacitly sides with Mr. Abashidze.

President Saakashvili, shortly after his election in December, pledged to re-unite the divided Caucasus nation of some four million people, and made repeated efforts to maintain his authority in the province.

Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, flew to the region on Tuesday, and, after meeting with Mr. Abashidze, blamed Tbilisi for exacerbating tension. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference in Moscow, said the mayor's mission has the full backing of the Kremlin.

He says Russia respects the territorial integrity of Georgia, and expresses hope a peaceful solution can be found soon.

The secretary of Georgia's Security Council, Vano Mirabishivili, met with Russian officials in Moscow and said the solution to Georgia's problems with its separatist provinces lies in Moscow.