- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

TBILISI, Georgia — Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Georgia’s capital yesterday, demanding that the president step down in the wake of the arrest of a former defense minister who accused the leader of involvement in a murder plot.

The small, U.S.-allied former Soviet republic was thrown into turmoil earlier this week when hawkish former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili charged that President Mikhail Saakashvili, his former ally, was corrupt and had encouraged him to kill a prominent businessman.

The anti-government outpouring is some of the worst to hit the Caucasus Mountains nation since Mr. Saakashvili was propelled to power in the 2003 uprising known as the Rose Revolution.

Mr. Saakashvili, who has been in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly, has not commented on the charges made by Mr. Okruashvili, or on renewed clashes this week in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Security agents and police detained Mr. Okruashvili Thursday at the offices of the new political party he announced earlier this week. Prosecutors yesterday charged him with extortion, money laundering and abuse of power.

In downtown Tbilisi, some 10,000 opposition supporters gathered in front of parliament, blocking traffic on the capital’s main avenue. In an appeal that was read out by a member of his Movement for a United Georgia, Mr. Okruashvili called on his supporters to “unite and fight.”

In Washington, a delegation of top Georgia opposition party leaders made a scathing attack on the Saakashvili government, saying the president has systematically undermined the political, legal and economic reforms promised in the Rose Revolution.

“The trends are very bad in Georgia today,” said Salome Zourabichvili, a former foreign minister under Mr. Saakashvili and now head of the opposition Way of Georgia party. “Frankly, I don’t know if Georgia can remain a democracy if things go on as they have.”

David Usupashvili, chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, warned in an interview with The Washington Times that pro-U.S. popular opinion in Georgia — based in part on U.S. backing for the Rose Revolution — was at serious risk because of the Bush administration’s close links to Mr. Saakashvili.

A senior official of the ruling United National Movement party, David Kirkitadze, warned that authorities would take steps to stop “any attempts to forcibly overthrow the legitimate government.”

Mr. Okruashvili had been an ally of Mr. Saakashvili since before the Rose Revolution. He served as prosecutor general and was defense minister until November, when he was named minister of economic development. He left a week later and went into private business.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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