Georgia opposition starts hunger strike

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TBILISI, Nov 5 (Reuters) Four opposition activists declared a hunger strike today to try to force Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign, as crowds chanting for his ouster formed a human chain around parliament.

Saakashvili, a close US ally, faces the biggest challenge of his four-year rule from a newly united protest movement which accuses him of authoritarianism and failing to tackle poverty and corruption. Protesters want the president to quit and call early parliamentary polls.

''I'm starting a hunger strike today,'' People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili told protesters. ''My life is the only thing I've got. So, if my Georgia needs my life, I'm ready to sacrifice it.'' Levan Gachechiladze, an opposition member of parliament, also vowed to stop eating. ''We are ready to carry on the hunger strike until we win and the president resigns,'' he said.

Around 10,000 people attended a fourth day of rallies, many wearing the opposition's symbolic white ribbons, with about 3,000 forming a human chain around the parliament building.

Some shouted ''Misha, go away!'', using the familiar form of Saakashvili's first name. Others yelled: ''Misha, the roses have wilted!'' -- a reference to the popular movement, dubbed the ''Rose Revolution'', which swept the president to power in 2003.

RECLUSIVE SAAKASHVILI Saakashvili, who has not appeared in public since the mass protests started on Friday, rejected all the demonstrators' demands and accusations as a ''campaign of lies'' in a pre-recorded television interview broadcast yesterday evening.

''No concessions to these dark, absolutely 100 per cent negative forces at the expense of the Georgian people ... have been made, are being made now and never will be made,'' Saakashvili said. ''I want everyone to fully comprehend this.'' Opposition politicians dismissed his remarks and asked why he had not appeared in public since the demonstrations began.

But Saakashvili won backing from US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, who said he saw no crisis in Georgia.

''I'm not sure that there is an issue of instability in the country,'' Fried told a news conference in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, where he is on a visit.

Opposition figures accused a police colonel of poisoning at least 30 anti-government demonstrators with adulterated wine during protests last night, saying they had seen him handing out the drinks from his car.

Officials agreed some demonstrators had been taken to hospital but said the wine had been smuggled in by one of the protesters.

Doctors in the hospital where the protesters were taken said they had been drunk rather than poisoned.

''They are now suffering from hangovers,'' doctor Gogi Kavtaradze told reporters.

The whereabouts of the man whose dramatic allegations against Saakashvili sparked the protest campaign remained unclear today.

Former defence minister Irakly Okruashvili broke with the president after being sacked from the cabinet. In September, he accused his former boss of massive corruption and plotting a businessman's murder, provoking big demonstrations.

Saakashvili rejected the charges and Okruashvili retracted them after being briefly arrested. His lawyer said his statement withdrawing the allegations was made under duress.

Opposition politicians said last week that Okruashvili had planned to attend their mass demonstration on Friday but was deported secretly on Thursday to an unspecified western European country. The government said he left for medical treatment.


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