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Georgian President Praises People of Ajaria - 2004-05-06

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has praised the people of Ajaria for their bravery in protesting against autonomous leader Aslan Abashidze, who resigned overnight and left Ajaria for Moscow. He also offered unusual thanks to Russia, which he has long viewed as siding with Ajaria.

President Saakashvili addressed Ajaria's people from inside Mr. Abashidze's former residence in the regional capital, Batumi. He said their effort, which brought 15,000 people out into the streets over the past two days, demonstrated to the world the Georgian people's desire for democracy.

He also thanked Russia, whose officials he said played a constructive role in helping to resolve the problem peacefully.

Mr. Saakashvili said Russian President Vladimir Putin could share in today's success in Ajaria. And he expressed amazement that it had all come about so peacefully.

After months of bitter exchanges that often raised fears of armed conflict, the stand-off finally broke after Russia's Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov held several hours of talks with Mr. Abashidze overnight, at Georgia's request. The talks ended with Mr. Abashidze leaving for Moscow.

He arrived in the Russian capital around dawn, accompanied by his son and a small group of advisors. There has been no official word on what he plans to do in Moscow, or how long he plans to stay. But some Russian news reports earlier suggested he could be considering whether to seek asylum.

President Saakashivili earlier offered Mr. Abashidze safe passage and a pledge of no prosecution, if he left Batumi of his own accord. He told Georgia's people that with Mr. Abashidze now gone, a new era of Georgian unity can begin.

New elections are expected to be held in the region within a month. In the interim, President Saakashvili has imposed direct presidential rule on Ajaria, which officials have already pledged will retain its autonomous status.

Georgia's Prime Minister, Zurab Zhvania, says a commission of Georgian and Ajarian officials will soon be named to run the province's affairs until the elections. He also called for civilians and local forces to turn in any weapons they have within the week. He says if they meet the deadline they will be free from prosecution.

The prime minister also announced that work to restore the Choloki bridge, one of the links Ajaria has to the rest of Georgia, would begin on Thursday. That is the bridge forces loyal to Mr. Abashidze blew up last Sunday, sparking the latest escalation of tensions that spiraled into massive anti-Abashidze protests.

Thousands of people went to Batumi from neighboring areas of Georgia to join Ajarains to celebrate the news of Mr. Abashidze's resignation.

People sang Georgian folk songs and passed around bottles of the local wine. This unidentified woman told Russian television the most important thing now is for Georgia to preserve its unity.

The woman said Georgia once was, and again will be, a strong state.

The events in Ajaria are reminiscent of last November's revolution in Tbilisi, which forced veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. Mr. Saakashvili led those protests, and was subsequently elected President, in part, due to his pledge to create a unified, democratic Georgia.