Protesters in Georgia stage mass rally to demand early elections

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More than 50,000 opposition supporters rallied yesterday in Georgia's capital, accusing President Mikhail Saakashvili of leading the country away from democracy. They threatened to keep the protests going until he responds to their demands.

The rally is the latest protest against Saakashvili, a stalwart US ally, who faces his worst political crisis since he was propelled to power in the 2003 uprising known as the Rose Revolution.

On mock gallows erected in front of the parliament building, protesters hung a photograph of Saakashvili on a long-stemmed rose.

Opposition leaders demanded the reversal of a decision to move back next year's parliamentary election by several months. They also called for the creation of a new elections commission with the involvement of opposition members, and changes to the election law that they say will make it more democratic.

Giya Tortladze, of the For United Georgia movement, read out the demands, saying they were giving Saakashvili until the end of the day to respond, threatening otherwise to continue the rally indefinitely.

"We are coming to destroy your violent regime, to destroy your prisons," opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze said in rallying the crowd.

The crowd responded by chanting: "Misha go!"— calling Saakashvili by the diminutive of his first name.

The large number of protesters — many wearing white head and arm bands, the color of the opposition — paralyzed traffic in downtown Tbilisi, but the rally remained peaceful. The police presence was not heavy, though regular and riot police were on standby.