Georgia's rulers threaten force if protest violent

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TBILISI, Sept 28 (Reuters) The Georgian government will meet force with force if a protest rally in the capital Tbilisi later today turns violent, a key ally of the president today said.

The rally has been planned by supporters of the former defence minister, Irakly Okruashvili, who was arrested yesterday on charges of money-laundering and corruption.

Members of Georgia's fractured opposition said Okruashvili's arrest was politically motivated. He recently formed his own opposition party, ''For United Georgia'', and accused President Mikhail Saakashvili of corruption in televised remarks on Tuesday.

''If the opposition uses violent methods to attack the authorities, then we will reply with force ... We do not mean holding a peaceful meeting,'' said Giga Bokeria, a leading parliamentarian and an ally of Saakashvili.

Saakashvili sacked Okruashvili in 2006 for criticising Russia for its support of the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, backing that is one of several sources of tension between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Georgia itself was riven by civil war in the 1990s, and Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, came to power in a bloodless revolution in 2003.

Bokeria denied Okruashvili's arrest was politically motivated: ''For us the crisis consists of the fact that such a high-ranking official appears to be involved in these crimes. I do not expect serious trouble to develop,'' she said.

A political ally of Okruashvili, parliamentarian Georgy Tsagareishvili, said the rally would be peaceful but protesters would demand early parliamentary and presidential elections.

The government plans to hold elections in autumn 2008.

Opposition figures have said they believe the real reason for Okruashvili's arrest was his accusations that Saakashvili had accumulated wealth amounting to billions of dollars while in office.

In his televised remarks on Tuesday, Okruashvili accused the president of corruption and of discussing the possibility of eliminating a businessman, but produced no evidence to support his allegations.

The press office of Saakashvili, who is in New York attending the UN General Assembly, has refused to comment. Saakashvili is due to travel to Greece afterwards.

REUTERS SS KN1722

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