TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgian opposition activists sped into the capital in buses–vans–and cars on Friday–cheered on by hundreds lining the streets–to push deman’s for President Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation.
As night fell–a long snake of lights from a convoy of vehicles approached Tbilisi–bringing thousands more opposition protesters and raising fears of clashes with pro-government followers already massed in the capital.
Supporters of main opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili said they would stop just short of the pro-government rally outside parliament and would protest at "Freedom Square," where a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was toppled after the union fell in 1991.
Earlier–hundreds of interior troops and riot police blocked off roads surrounding the parliament and Shevardnadze’s offices–forming a barrier of metal shields and wearing body armor and green or black face masks.
"Shevardnadze’s regime ends tonight," Saakashvili told supporters in Tbilisi. "It is better for him to flee; otherwise tomorrow we will trample his regime."
Georgia’s Security Council secretary said he feared the confrontation could plunge the Caucasus Mountains country of about five million into even worse violence than when Georgia was shattered by civil war in the early 1990s.
"If there is a stand-off it will be all-encompassing and much more dangerous than 10 years ago," Tedo Japaridze told reporters–warning that the security services feared "bloodshed."
Opposition protesters have convulsed Georgia since a November 2 parliamentary election–which they say the authorities stole. Official results on Thursday gave the two top spots to Shevardnadze’s allies.
With average salaries for state workers at just $20 a month–early protests over electoral abuses have snowballed into wider calls for Shevardnadze’s ouster over plunging living standards–corruption–and the loss of territory to separatists. The United States has also sharply criticized the election. Japaridze–a former ambassador to Washington–said the new parliament should meet only temporarily before staging extraordinary elections–which might appease the opposition.
"The results are hurting the image of the country as a member of the international democratic community," he said.
Western powers and neighbors have appealed to both sides to resolve the standoff peacefully. Any trouble could threaten a planned oil pipeline through the country from neighboring Azerbaijan to Turkey.
But Saakashvili has also pledged to block the first session of parliament on Saturday–in which government officials have pledged to discuss the disputed election results. On Friday–he claimed Sheverdnadze was leading a "bloodless revolution" and called on the police and armed forces to stand aside in an increasingly tense capital.
"I’d like to appeal to police and the armed forces–there is a bloodless–democratic–peaceful–velvet revolution going on in our country and for you to take the side of the people," Saakashvili told reporters.
Government supporters held a protest outside Tbilisi’s town hall–while outside parliament–numbers swelled at a pro-presidential rally that has been going on for three days. Many participants said they had been brought by train or bus from Adzhara–an autonomous region run by a hard-line ally of Shevardnadze–Aslan Abashidze.
"They told us ‘let’s go’–’let’s go’. So I came. I have been here two days," said an elderly man–who changed his name to Osman when he asked whether his quotes could be published.
Analysts said Abashidze’s role could signal a return of Russian influence. Russia’still has an army base in his region and he went to Moscow recently for talks. Shevardnadze had previously fought against Russian influence.