Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Peace talks fail in Georgia

AFP , TBILISI

A political crisis in Georgia which has seen thousands of protesters calling for the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze deepened early yesterday after late-night peace talks broke up with no agreement.

After leaving the talks in Shevardnadze's lavish residence just outside the capital, opposition leaders joined the 5,000 protesters who are camped outside the parliament building and who say they will not budge until the president annuls a disputed parliamentary election and quits office.

"We will fight to the end, until this regime leaves," said Mikhail Saakashvili, who was at the failed talks. "Shevardnadze is leading the country towards civil war. He is responsible for whatever happens."

The protests, which have been going on throughout this former Soviet republic for a week, have been peaceful. But there were fears that with Georgia's turbulent history, they could turn violent.

Defense Minister David Tevzadze warned on Sunday that "the situation has practically gone out of control. The situation is no longer manageable."

But Tevzadze would not be drawn on whether the army would intervene. "It is not clear how events will develop ... There is always a choice of mechanisms, and time will show what will be done," he said.

The protests are over the Nov. 2 parliamentary election which Shevardnadze's opponents say he rigged. The unrest has left the 75-year-old former Soviet foreign minister, who is feted in the West for helping end the Cold War, in a fight for his political survival.

The last time the capital, Tbilisi, saw demonstrations on this scale was nearly 14 years ago, when Shevardnadze's predecessor Zviad Gamsakhurdia was facing unrest. That dispute ended in a civil war.

Georgia's political stability matters to the West because the country lies on the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which when completed in 2005 will ship Caspian Sea oil to world markets.

Shevardnadze is nicknamed the "grey fox" for his wily political maneuvering and was trying Sunday to defuse the situation. He has already dismissed calls for him to step down before his term ends in 2005.

He put a hopeful spin on the talks at his official Ktsanisi residence, saying the discussion was useful and he hoped for more meetings. "I am ready for dialogue and that dialogue started today," he said.

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