Thousands rally against Georgia vote

 

Tens of thousands of Georgian opposition supporters rallied in Tiblisi to protest what they denounced as massive vote fraud that helped US-allied Mikhail Saakashvili win a second presidential term.

Wearing the opposition's trademark white scarves, the protesters marched for several hours across downtown the Georgian capital in freezing weather to demand a recount of the Jan. 5 election. Organisers said about 100,000 people turned out for the rally.

Saakashvili won the election with 53 per cent of the vote, while main opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze had just under 26 per cent, according to final official results released Sunday.

Gachechiladze and his supporters denounced the official count, saying it reflected a massive government effort to rig the vote. They said election officials responsible for ballot tinkering must be prosecuted, and demanded a runoff between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze.

In 2003, mass protests ousted the previous leader and catapulted Saakashvili - then the hero of the uprising dubbed the Rose Revolution - into the presidency, but his popularity has plunged amid accusations of authoritarianism.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a mixed assessment of the election. It called the vote a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia. but pointed to an array of violations.

Participants in today's rally carried signs reading: "OSCE backs rigged elections" and "USA supporter of dictatorship."

The controversy raised fears of instability in the ex-Soviet republic, which sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and where the United States and Russia are vying for influence.