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Street Protests Against Ajaria's Leader Intensify - 2004-05-05

The leader of Georgia's autonomous region of Ajaria and the government of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili were in talks Wednesday as street protests against the provincial leader in Batumi intensified. There are reports some members of the police and the government have joined the demonstrators, and more protesters are reported to be on their way to the capital.

The secretary of Georgia's National Security Council says President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze talked by telephone Wednesday. Vano Merabishvili gave no details about the conversation, but said the crisis, fueled by massive demonstrations in Ajarian capital Batumi against Mr. Abashidze, will soon be resolved.

Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania is also expected to hold talks with regional officials in Ajaria late Wednesday.

Mr. Merabishvili said Georgia's government has sufficient forces to disband Mr. Abashidze's militias, and called on his backers to align with the government to avoid bloodshed.

Massive protests in the streets of Batumi came after President Saakashvili ordered Mr. Abashidze to disband his militias within 10 days and end repression. The demonstrators are demanding that Mr. Abashidze resign. According to reports from Batumi, a number of local police officers have joined their side.

This police officer, speaking on Russian television, explains why.

He says the police force is not a political organization. He says we serve our people and we will be where are people are.

As a further sign of local support for Mr. Abashidze is eroding, Ajaria's Deputy Interior Minister Elgudzha Dzhincharadze is also reported to have joined sides with the opposition. And there are reports that some members of parliament and officials of Ajaria television have resigned.

But, in a brief statement broadcast on Russian television Wednesday, Mr. Abashidze was defiant.

He says he would not allow Georgia's new government to threaten Ajaria's long-established autonomous status.

Mr. Abashidze added fuel to the crisis Sunday when he ordered his security forces to blow up major bridges connecting Ajaria to Georgia. President Saakashvili responded by giving the Ajarian leader 10 days to resign.

The tensions are raising concern throughout the region, especially in neighboring Russia, which has a military base there. President Vladimir Putin is sending his top security adviser Igor Ivanov, to Ajaria in an effort to help defuse the crisis.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev is also calling for dialogue, saying stability must be maintained at all costs. Azerbaijan, Turkey and the United States, are concerned that tensions in Georgia could disrupt the planned start of a major new oil pipeline which is to bring oil from the Caucasus to the West.