Georgia hindering big protest rally - opposition

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TBILISI, Nov 1 (Reuters) Georgian opposition leaders accused President Mikhail Saakashvili today of trying to prevent a big anti-government rally planned for tomorrow and asked visiting Western officials to intercede on their behalf.

Saakashvili is facing his biggest challenge since coming to power in 2003. A former key ally has turned against him, sparking a wave of protests across the Caucasus state.

The president wants to take Georgia into NATO and the European Union and frequently flaunts his pro-Western credentials but critics say they mask an authoritarian streak and an intolerance of dissent.

The opposition is planning a major rally tomorrow in the capital, Tbilisi, to demand parliamentary elections next spring, following a wave of protest meetings in regional cities.

But demonstration leaders said the authorities were trying to foil the protests by preventing supporters from travelling to Tbilisi and secretly deporting the leading opposition figure whose arrest sparked the protest movement.

They asked visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried to intervene.

''We met Mr Fried today and asked him to deliver our messages to the authorities and to be a mediator,'' Kakha Kukava, one opposition leader, told Reuters. Fried was set to meet Saakashvili later in the day.

Opposition leaders also met Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, Secretary General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main democracy watchdog.

''We have laid out our vision of the situation in Georgia, which is different from the heaven depicted by the authorities,'' opposition leader Georgy Tsagareishvili told journalists.

DEPORTED The opposition said Irakly Okruashvili, a former defence minister whose arrest in September sparked the protests, was secretly deported late yesterday to Western Europe because he wanted to take part in the rally.

''I'd like to confirm that Irakly wanted to attend the rally tomorrow,'' Eka Beselia, a member of Okruashvili's party and his lawyer, told journalists.

''But he was forced to leave the country... His family is in Georgia and they remain here as hostages.'' The Georgian government declined to comment on the matter.

Okruashvili turned against Saakashvili after being fired from the cabinet and accused his former boss of corruption and plotting to murder an opponent, charges the president denied.

Okruashvili was arrested after making his allegations against Saakashvili but later released on 6 million dollar bail after saying in a televised ''confession'' that he had invented the claims.

Friends said the statement was made under duress.

Georgia's Imedi television station showed reports from several regions where opposition supporters' cars had been stopped by the authorities. Some had their tyres punctured.

Authorities in the Black Sea province of Ajara blocked a major road because they said it was undergoing repairs while road police confiscated motorists' driving licences in the cities of Kutaisi and Zugdidi, Imedi said.

''They are trying not to let us in, but we will make it to Tbilisi whatever they do,'' one opposition supporter told Imedi. An opposition leader called for a general strike.

Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze appealed for calm as tension rose in the capital.

''I urge you to use your constitutional rights. But I want everybody to think about responsibility towards our country and future generations,'' Burjanadze told journalists.

REUTERS RJ BD2114

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