TBILISI, Nov 16 (Reuters) Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili promised today to allow opposition parties freedom of expression ahead of snap elections but ducked a question about letting a critical TV station back on air.
Georgia has been rocked by weeks of political turmoil culminating in a bloody crackdown by the authorities against opposition protesters and the imposition by Saakashvili of emergency rule, which was to expire later today.
''All political forces representing all political groups of all citizens will have the opportunity to hold political activity without any limits,'' said Saakashvili at Tbilisi airport.
He declined to answer a question from Reuters on when the Imedi TV channel -- the main broadcast outlet for the opposition -- would be allowed back on air, saying he was in a rush for a flight to meet Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev in the regional city of Batumi.
One opposition leader countered that until the channel was back on air, there could be no talk of free elections, while a second compared the country's president with the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
The United States and media watchdogs have called for the channel to be allowed back on air as soon as possible but a Georgian judge earlier this week imposed a separate ban on Imedi and impounded its equipment.
''As the situation in Georgia is quiet and calm and life is back to normal, the state of emergency is lifted from today,'' said Saakashvili.
The country's parliament had already voted yesterday to lift the state of emergency, which bans opposition news broadcasts and mass meetings, from 1900hrs (2030hrs IST) today.
It was imposed by the president after police fired tear gas and baton charged protesters calling for his resignation. As a concession to his opponents Saakashvili, then called a snap presidential election for January 5.
MASKED POLICE Masked police also broke into the broadcaster Imedi and smashed up its equipment before forcing it off air, prompting an angry reaction from its operator, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
''We lift all limits for political activities which were quite minimal. We are preparing for early presidential elections and the referendum on dates for parliamentary elections,'' Saakashvili said.
''Our legislation guarantees opposition access to TV as well as other media outlets. We have applied to the EU with a request to send observers for election day as well as a long-term mission who will help us to solve issues for the further developments of democracy in Georgia,'' he said.
Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, said until the government restores Imedi TV, there could be no talk of free elections.
''Until the persecution of people, who took part in mass rallies stops, we can't talk about political freedoms. But we are going to win this election in all conditions,'' she said.
A declared opposition presidential candidate, Shalva Natelashvili and the chairman of the Labour Party, compared the President with Pinochet and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.
''He has a last chance to leave politics with dignity like Pinochet did and not to run for the presidency. Today all the world sees how Saakashvili is a 'big democrat','' he said.
''It is a pity that Saakashvili, who had reputation of Western-minded politician has turned into politician worse than Musharraf,'' he told Reuters.
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