Image: Mass protest in Tbilisi, Georgia
Shakh Aivazov  /  AP
Opposition supporters attend a mass rally Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia, at which they demanded that President Mikhail Saakashvili resign.
updated 5/26/2009 4:06:02 PM ET 2009-05-26T20:06:02

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 to prevent it from leaving the station. Police did not intervene.

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 would 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. They are angry with the president for leading the country into a disastrous war against Russia last year.

"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.

Anger over war
Demonstrators are angry with Saakashvili for leading Georgia into the war against Russia, in which Georgia lost territory and saw its military crushed and 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 emotional demonstration would prove to be a tipping point.

Saakashvili has remained defiant, saying he would stay through his second term, which ends in 2013.

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.

Military parade canceled
But the government canceled the parade, fearing clashes with the opposition.

No police were visible inside or outside the stadium at any point 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.

In a sign of the high-running emotions, Giorgy Gachechiladze — a famous singer and opposition figure — ran onto the soccer field and kneeled down in the center of a giant Georgian flag, pumping his fists.

Following the rally, religious leader Patriarch Ilia II was to address the crowd outside.

Opposition supporters poured in from around the country, with some arriving in long convoys of cars. 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 rejected the offer, saying they were only prepared to discuss his resignation.

For his part, Saakashvili gave a speech to young schoolchildren in Tbilisi and attended a memorial ceremony Tuesday honoring soldiers killed in last August's war. He also planned to visit the Black Sea city of Batumi, where he was to open a new street and visit local businesses.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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