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Georgian president faces down protesters

GEORGIAN President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday defied street protests and rejected opposition demands to resign over his record on democracy and last year's conflicts with Russia.

"It's obvious the answer to this question is 'No'," the 41-year-old leader told a news conference when asked if he would give in to the opposition call.

"It has always been 'No,' because that's how it is under the constitution," he said, hours before some 20,000 demonstrators converged on Tbilisi's main avenue in front of the parliament.

The crowds of 20,000 yesterday were thinner than those on Thursday, when 60,000 took to the streets of the capital, threatening to mount perhaps the biggest challenge to Saakashvili's rule since he was swept to power in the country's 2003 Rose Revolution.

Dozens of men, drinking wine and warming their hands over a fire, blocked the capital's main avenue in front of parliament through Thursday night and into yesterday. Opposition leaders vowed the protests would continue until the president stepped down.

Saakashvili, seen by some Georgians as brash and impulsive, has polarized opinion in the Caucasus country, a transit route for oil to the West.

But foreign diplomats question whether the opposition can maintain unity and muster enough people to join daily protests to force him out. They warn tensions risk boiling over into unrest.

"I've been facing these ultimatums every other month during the last five years," Saakashvili said. "Every independent poll clearly proves that people are longing for dialogue, for long-term stability."


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