|Georgia's opposition blocks railway station|
|Tuesday, 26 May 2009|
By David Nowak
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Thousands of angry protesters converged on the central train station in the Georgian capital Tuesday, trying to block the trains as the opposition raised the stakes in its push to get President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign.
Throngs of demonstrators surrounded one train, sitting on the track and climbing on the engine to prevent it from leaving the station. The engine started and then cut off quickly as protesters banged on its sides, shouted and whistled. Police were not visible.
The move marked a change in the opposition's tactics, reflecting protesters' exasperation after six weeks of daily rallies without result. It followed debates between the opposition leaders, some of whom strongly opposed more forceful action for fear of provoking violence.
The blockade at the train station followed a massive rally in which at least 60,000 opposition supporters gathered at the national stadium before marching to the parliament building to push for Saakashvili's resignation. The president has remained defiant, saying he will stay through his second term, which ends in 2013.
Opposition leaders warned Tuesday that protesters will also block highways and the Tbilisi main airport to force Saakashvili to resign.
The opposition chose a patriotic national holiday to raise the pitch of its protests which it has been conducting almost daily in Tbilisi since April 9.
"Today the Georgian people have shown to the world and to themselves that they're ready to struggle to the very end," Nino Burdzhanadze, the highest-profile opposition politician, told the crowd at the stadium.
"You have frightened those who want to frighten you," she said to deafening cheers.
Demonstrators are angry with Saakashvili for leading Georgia into the war against Russia, in which Georgia lost territory and saw its military crushed, its towns bombed and large chunks of its land temporarily occupied by Russian troops. Russia then recognized independence of Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but Georgia still considers them to be under Russian occupation.
The opposition also accuses Saakashvili of backtracking on democracy.
While the president still has a broad base of support in the former Soviet republic — which has experienced significant economic growth during his five years in office — opposition leaders hoped Tuesday's demonstration would prove to be a tipping point.
Tuesday's rally would have coincided with the annual military parade celebrating Georgia's short-lived independence before it was taken over by the Red Army in 1921. After decades of Soviet rule, independence was restored in 1991.
But the government canceled the parade, fearing clashes with the opposition.
No police were visible inside or outside the stadium during Tuesday's rally.
Waving red-and-white Georgian flags, the demonstrators in the stadium cheered, sang the national anthem and burst into chants of "Sakartvelo! Sakartvelo!" — the name of the country in Georgian.
Giorgy Gachechiladze, a well-known singer and opposition figure, ran onto the soccer field and knelt in the center of a giant Georgian flag, pumping his fists.
Later, outside the parliament, he told demonstrators: "While blood runs through my veins I will not allow Saakashvili to preside over our country."
Opposition supporters poured in from around the country. Overnight, hundreds of demonstrators carrying flags marched into Tbilisi in a torch-lit parade.
Saakashvili has offered to hold talks with opposition leaders on constitutional changes, but they have said they are prepared only to discuss his resignation.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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