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Protesters rally for third day in Georgia

More than 1,000 demonstrators in Georgia protested for a third consecutive day on Monday, calling for the ex-Soviet country’s Western-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign.

Accusing Saakashvili of authoritarianism and failing to tackle widespread poverty, they maintained their round-the-clock rally outside the Georgian public television studios in the capital.

Many were armed with sticks after brief clashes on Sunday when police used rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators who attacked cars.

“We will stay here until they throw us out,” protester Lasha Oniani told AFP.

Former parliamentary speaker turned opposition leader Nino Burjanadze has said that a “revolution” has started in Georgia, while another leader has called for a “Day of Rage” on Wednesday, referring to uprisings in the Middle East.

“It will not take a long time to unseat Saakashvili,” Burjanadze told AFP.

Despite poor social conditions and the country’s disastrous defeat in a war with its arch-foe Russia in 2008, the current protests have so far failed to attract significant numbers of people.

Some 6,000 rallied on Saturday in Tbilisi and hundreds in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, but turnout fell to around 2,000 on Sunday.

“There is no sign of a revolutionary situation in Georgia,” senior governing party lawmaker David Darchiashvili told AFP.

“They want to have a Tahrir Square in Georgia, but this has nothing in common with reality,” he said, referring to the Cairo epicentre of the Egyptian uprising.

In another dramatic move, fugitive former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was granted political asylum in France, vowed to return to Georgia by Wednesday this week to join the rally despite facing an 11-year jail sentence for alleged corruption.

Officials however said that Okruashvili — whose arrest helped to spark mass protests after he turned against the Georgian president in 2007 — would be detained immediately.

US-educated Saakashvili was swept to power after ousting his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze during the non-violent “Rose Revolution” in 2003, vowing to tackle institutional corruption and win membership of NATO.

But his ambitions brought him into conflict with Russia, and the Kremlin recognised rebel Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after the war in 2008 — a move which Tbilisi describes as “occupation” and which continues to fuel tensions with Moscow.

The Saakashvili administration, which sent in riot police to crush opposition protests in 2007, said the current rallies would be allowed to continue unhindered as long as they remained peaceful.

Despite war and political turmoil, Saakashvili has remained the country’s most powerful figure and many believe that he could continue to dominate Georgian politics after his term ends in 2013.

Russia did not miss a chance to lob a jab at Saakashvili, calling on him to respect human rights.

“If Georgia’s authorities do not stop the use of force, this would lead to a further exacerbation of relations between authorities and the opposition, (and) an even greater destabilisation of the whole situation in the country,” the Russian foreign ministry said.