Georgian president proposes early elections

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TBILISI, Nov 8 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili promised today to bring forward presidential elections to January in an attempt to defuse a major political crisis which has alienated his supporters at home and abroad.

Just one day after declaring a state of emergency and using riot police to crush anti-government protests, Saakashvili appeared on television to announce early elections and said he would stand.

''It is my proposal to hold presidential elections on January 5,'' Saakashvili said in the live broadcast. ''You demanded early elections but now you have them even earlier.'' The opposition, which staged unprecedented protests in Tbilisi for six days, demanded scrapping the presidency and holding an early parliamentary election. The president promised a referendum on whether to hold early parliamentary polls.

Saakashvili, a close US ally, has attempted to portray his small ex-Soviet state as a beacon of democracy and stability in the Caucasus region, an image which now lies in tatters.

In an unusually strong rebuke to a US ally, NATO had earlier scolded Saakashvili for imposing a state of emergency.

The European Commission also expressed concern.

''The imposition of emergency rule, and the closure of media outlets in Georgia...are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values,'' Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement.

France's Foreign Ministry said attacks on the press and freedoms were unacceptable and urged the government to show restraint.

Russia, accused by Saakashvili of stirring up the disorder, expelled three Georgian diplomats after Saakashvili said Georgia had ordered three Russian diplomats out of Tbilisi.

Moscow said the violent crackdown on protesters in Tbilisi had ''evidently shown what democracy Georgia-style is'' and appealed to the United Nations and the Council of Europe to press Georgia to stop using violence.

Russia denied it had anything to do with the disorder in Tbilisi and said Saakashvili was trying to distract attention from domestic problems.

STATE OF EMERGENCY Georgian schools were closed until next week, only state corporations were allowed to broadcast news and meetings were banned under the emergency measures which will last until November 22, subject to parliamentary approval.

Armed police stormed the main opposition broadcaster and took it off the air yesterday, forcing staff to the ground and holding guns to their heads. All independent television news programmes have been halted for the 15-day state of emergency.

Georgia has a history of volatility. It was ravaged by civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and largely peaceful separatist rebellions are under way in two regions of the country. Tbilisi sees the hand of Moscow in both.

Saakashvili wants to take Georgia -- an east-west oil transport link wedged between Russia and the West Asia -- into NATO and the European Union, policies which have set him on a collision course with Moscow.

Domestic opponents have accused him of an authoritarian style that brooks no dissent, of continuing human rights abuses and of failing to tackle poverty and unemployment.

''Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police,'' said US-based Human Rights Watch in a statement. ''Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force.'' Army trucks and hundreds of soldiers blocked side roads leading into Tbilisi's main street on Thursday, allowing only a handful of people through.

''I look at the policemen and see that they cannot look into people's eyes because they are ashamed,'' Tbilisi resident Keti Tavadze said as she stood near a line of soldiers and police.

REUTERS NY KP2257

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