Time runs out for rebel Georgian hard-liner

The final act of last year's "rose revolution" which swept out Georgia's discredited leaders was being played out yesterday as a hard-line regional strongman, a holdout from the old regime, clung to power.

Aslan Abashidze, a former Communist official who runs the Black Sea territory of Adjara like a personal fiefdom, was under attack from Georgia's reforming young president Mikhail Saakashvili and from students protesting in the streets for Mr Abashidze to resign.

Adjara's leader yesterday sent in his baton-wielding police to break up one rally of students and teaching staff outside the university in the regional capital, Batumi. Protest leaders said 40 people were hurt, several of them critically. They promised more demonstrations, defying the local authorities.

Meanwhile Mr Saakashvili, barely containing his anger as he spoke live on television, warned his adversary that his time was running out. "I am ordering the police and armed groups in Adjara to refuse to carry out the orders given them by Abashidze," the 36-year-old president said.

"What happened today was a spontaneous protest but it has begun a protest which cannot be reversed."

The American embassy in Tbilisi condemned the violent break-up of the Batumi demonstration. "This appears to be another example in a disturbing pattern of the repression of the right to free speech and peaceful assembly," it said.

The scenes in Adjara echoed events in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, last year. Then, Mr Saakashvili led weeks of street protests against President Eduard Shevardnadze.

When it became clear that Mr Shevardnadze's own police would not protect him he resigned, clearing the field for Mr Saakashvili, who was educated at Georgetown University in the United States and was a trainee at a New York law firm, to win a presidential election.

But the so-called "rose revolution" which Mr Saakashvili led never reached Mr Abashidze's Black Sea enclave.Mr Saakashvili's tough, Western-oriented leadership has not been to Mr Abashidze's taste. He has refused to submit to Tbilisi's authority, repressed local dissent and this weekend he blew up the bridges across the river which divides Adjara from the rest of Georgia. He justified the decision by saying he wanted to prevent Mr Saakashvili ordering tanks into Adjara.

The region was left in effect cut off. An oil terminal in Batumi has ground to a halt, and cargo lorries are backed up on the road into Adjara. Some enterprising tradesmen were loading goods onto horses and fording the river.

Yet even as Mr Abashidze's situation became desperate, there was little hope that a revolution to oust him would follow the same peaceful scenario as last year's uprising in Tbilisi.

"He would die sooner than leave," said one observer, who has met Mr Abashidze several times. He is backed by a praetorian guard of loyal armed men and he has tanks and missile batteries at his disposal.

The nightmare scenario is a civil war such as the one in Georgia in the early 1990s when two other restive regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, fought separatist wars and humiliated Georgia's armed forces.

Western governments are watching developments with growing alarm. Last year, construction began on a strategic pipeline to transport Caspian Sea oil through the volatile region to the international market. A conflict in the area could jeopardise the multi-billion-dollar project, which is strongly backed by the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia still has a military base in Adjara, a hangover from the Soviet era. Georgia views Moscow warily for its tacit support of the two other rebel regions, but Mr Saakashvili said on Monday he believed the Russian base in Adjara was not involved in events there.

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