Georgian opposition masses to challenge president

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TBILISI, Nov 2 (Reuters) Thousands of Georgians plan to challenge President Mikhail Saakashvili today by taking part in what could be the biggest opposition protests since the Rose Revolution demonstrations that swept him to power.

Saakashvili's opponents say tens of thousands of people will turn out for a rally outside parliament in Tbilisi, where similar-sized crowds drove President Eduard Shevardnadze from office in 2003 after a rigged parliamentary election.

''I came to Tbilisi to show our president that many people are not satisfied with him and his government,'' protester Iuza Samkharadze from Chiatura, nearly 200 km west of the capital, told Reuters.

''When he was elected as president, I compared him to St George (the patron saint), but he has disappointed us very much since that time.'' The opposition, newly united against Saakashvili, accuse the US educated lawyer of crushing dissent. They want early parliamentary elections and presidential powers to be trimmed.

A convoy of cars and minibuses, with people waving Georgian flags, arrived in the capital overnight.

The opposition said police had stopped some protesters but then reconsidered and let them through. The government said it would respect their right to protest peacefully.

About 30 people spent the night warming themselves around a fire outside the parliament building in the centre of Tbilisi while others, who came from the regions, spent the night sleeping in cars and mini-buses in different parts of Tbilisi.

Saakashvili, who wants to take Georgia into NATO and the European Union, frequently flaunts his democratic credentials. But critics say that is a facade that masks an authoritarian streak and an intolerance of dissent.

US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried said the opposition remained weak.

''We in Tbilisi are witnessing a test of whether Georgia's political system ... can find a place for dissenting voices and rational debate,'' he said.

CHALLENGE TO SAAKASHVILI Saakashvili, 39, can set meetings alight with his fiery rhetoric.

But the opposition, financed by powerful businessmen, says he has usurped too much power.

''We want to show the government that many people in Georgia are not happy with the way they rule the country,'' Koka Guntsadze, one of the opposition leaders, told Reuters.

''Many (of the protesters) supported Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution. But they are very disappointed today.'' A source close to Saakashvili told Reuters the administration was not worried: ''Big rallies are held all over the world and are normal in democratic countries.'' Georgia's fractured opposition united in September when former Defence Minister Irakly Okruashvili was arrested days after saying he was creating an opposition party and levelling criminal accusations against the president.

The opposition said Okruashvili had been bundled onto a plane late on Wednesday because he wanted to take part in the rally.

Government officials said he asked to leave for medical treatment abroad.

Reuters SZ DB1231

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