Celebrations as Adjara's leader flees rebellious region

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The Independent Online

There were scenes of jubilation in Adjara last night as the leader of Georgia's rebellious region capitulated and slipped quietly away.

In contrast to his defiant stance when crowds took to the streets to demand his resignation, Aslan Abashidze's departure was swift and silent.

For some time now, Mr Abashidze, who was accused of running the province like a feudal lord, had been at odds with Mikhail Saakashvili, the charismatic Georgian President who led the successful, bloodless uprising against Eduard Shevardnadze last year.

Last night a beaming Mr Saakashvili told a televised news briefing: "Aslan has fled. Adjara is free." Appealing for calm, he added: "With the resignation of Abashidze, a new epoch begins not only in the lives of the residents of the autonomous republic, but in Georgia as a whole, an epoch of democracy, of peace, an epoch of real unity."

A rally of 10,000 of the Georgian President's supporters, who had massed to put pressure on Mr Abashidze to resign, shouted "victory, victory".

The former Adjaran leader was reported to have left for Moscow with Igor Ivanov, the head of the Russian Security Council, who had arrived in the Adjaran capital, Batumi, several hours earlier.

Initial reports said the pair slipped quietly out of the leader's residence. His aircraft had left the airport before reporters arrived.

Months of confrontation had threatened to spill over into violence with tensions mounting considerably over the past few days. Mr Abashidze ordered the destruction of bridges connecting the Black Sea province with the rest of Georgia, he said, to prevent its forces taking control.

Mr Saakashvili in turn raised the pressure yesterday by ordering the military to take control of all internal border crossings and telling the Adjaran leader he must disarm his private militias and leave.

He said: "I take full responsibility and give a guarantee of safety to Aslan Abashidze, but only in the event that he voluntarily leaves his post. I am also giving guarantees to Abashidze's family. If they wish to remain on the territory of Georgia, then they will have all guarantees for their safety."

He said he had spoken to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the White House, asking them to grant the Adjaran leader asylum.

In scenes reminiscent of last year's "Rose Revolution" which toppled President Shevardnadze, thousands of Georgians surged into the streets of Adjara, calling for the leader of the last stronghold of the former regime to step aside.

In a region where political dissent was repressed, the protests in Batumi were an unusually large. Throughout the day, support for Mr Abashidze ebbed away. First his police officers, then the soldiers in his private army and finally members of his administration abandoned him.

But the Adjaran leader earlier appeared to be standing firm. He told viewers on Adjara TV: "Now 5,000 people are out on the streets demanding the resignation of a man who has been democratically elected by hundreds of thousands of people. Do I have to come out here with a piece of paper saying I've been elected? I don't do stupid things like that."

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