Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Georgians celebrate rebel warlord's ouster

OVERTHROW The president thanked crowds who had forced Aslan Abashidze, who had ruled Adzhara as a personal fief, to flee to exile in Russia


A Georgian special forces soldier holds a red-and-white Georgian flag as he and a comrade stand atop an APC in Batumi, capital of Adzhara province yesterday. President Mikhail Saakashvili addressed a jubilant crowd, calling its people ''heroic'' after officials said regional leader Aslan Abashidze resigned and left for Russia after a decade-long power struggle with the central government.


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili arrived in Adzhara early yesterday and thanked welcoming crowds for forcing the region's rebel leader from power.

From the former residence of Aslan Abashidze, who fled Adzhara on Wednesday after running it as a personal fiefdom for more than a decade, Saakashvili praised those whose defiant mass protests had helped bring down Abashidze.

"I'd like to say thank you to all of you, for your bravery," he said in a brief speech. "Thank you for everything you did."

Celebrations erupted in Adzhara's main town Batumi after Abashidze left the region, apparently to exile in Russia, following talks with Russia's former foreign minister Igor Ivanov.

Saakashvili, elected in January after leading a bloodless revolution to oust veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze last year, has vowed to bring Adzhara and other unruly regions of the former Soviet republic back under central control.

"I congratulate everyone on this victory, on the beginning of Georgia's unification. Georgia will be united," he said in Tbilisi before flying to Batumi.

In an interview with reporters soon after his arrival in Batumi, Saakashvili said Abashidze had been "some kind of mini-Saddam Hussein".

"But people went out and people destroyed him, and that's the force of democracy," he added.

"Georgia has two peaceful revolutions within the last months without any bloodshed. This is a very unique chance."

Unruly crowds converged on Abashidze's luxurious abandoned residence and briefly began seizing furniture before officials restored order. Supporters of Saakashvili swept through the town, shouting "Victory, victory!"

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania appealed for calm on television, urging residents to turn in weapons within a week.

Bringing back to the central government fold two other regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- is likely to prove much more difficult.

Adzhara, whose residents are ethnic Georgians, had only sought autonomy. The other areas have different ethnic compositions and declared full independence a decade or more ago after wars costing thousands of lives.

Abashidze had in recent weeks ignored calls for his resignation and imposed a state of emergency. He spent Wednesday evening in talks with Ivanov, who launched his mission after months of confrontation threatened to spill over into bloodshed.

In the event, Abashidze and Ivanov slipped quietly away from the Adzharan leader's residence in the Adzharan capital Batumi. Reporters who raced to the airport found the Adzharan leader's aircraft gone and his guards saying he had left.

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, speaking in Tbilisi, said Abashidze had apparently left for Russia -- which has in the past given tacit support for rebellious Adzhara as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Saakashvili had set the stage for the 65-year-old leader's flight by offering him safe passage if he stepped down and left.

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