Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied Sunday in the Georgian capital to protest what they denounced as massive vote fraud that helped U.S.-allied Mikhail Saakashvili win a second presidential term.
Wearing the opposition's trademark white scarves, the protesters marched for several hours across downtown Tbilisi in freezing weather to demand a recount of the Jan. 5 election. Organizers said about 100,000 people turned out for the rally.
Saakashvili won the election with 53 percent of the vote, while main opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze had just under 26 percent, according to final official results released Sunday.
Gachechiladze and his supporters denounced the official count, saying it reflected a massive government effort to rig the vote. They said election officials responsible for ballot tinkering must be prosecuted, and demanded a runoff between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze.
"Georgia doesn't have a legitimate president," Gachechiladze said at the rally. "If we stand together, we will win."
In 2003, mass protests ousted the previous leader and catapulted Saakashvili _ then the hero of the uprising dubbed the Rose Revolution _ into the presidency, but his popularity has plunged amid accusations of authoritarianism.
On Sunday, Gachechiladze and other opposition leaders also demanded regular access to state television, which has focused on covering Saakashvili and his allies.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a mixed assessment of the election.
It called the vote a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia. but pointed to an array of violations.
Participants in Sunday's rally carried signs reading: "OSCE backs rigged elections" and "U.S.A. supporter of dictatorship."
The controversy raised fears of instability in the ex-Soviet republic, which sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and where the United States and Russia are vying for influence.
Saakashvili, 40, has helped transform Georgia into a country with a growing economy and aspirations of joining the European Union and NATO, cultivating close ties with the U.S. and seeking to decrease Russia's influence.
But a brutal police crackdown on an opposition rally in Tbilisi on Nov. 7 provoked widespread public anger and drew harsh criticism from Western governments.
Saakashvili called the early presidential vote to assuage tensions.
"The Nov. 7 police action against peaceful civilians was outrageous, and official fraud in the presidential vote was disgusting," said Irina Berishvili, 52, a literature expert who attended Sunday's protest.
The opposition said it was deprived of fair access to television during the election campaign and pointed at what it called evidence of widespread official falsification of the vote.
Leaders claimed Saakashvili fell far short of an outright majority and should face off against Gachechiladze in a runoff.
Ongoing protests planned
Zviad Dzidziguri, leader of the Conservative Party, said the opposition alliance would stage regular protests outside state television and other official buildings.
"We will seek to achieve our goals by exclusively peaceful methods," he said at the rally. "We will win, because we defend the truth."
Opposition leaders accused Saakashvili of forcing prominent businessmen to support his rule and deny financial assistance to the opposition. "Many businessmen in Georgia are practically Saakashvili's slaves," Dzidziguri said.