Georgia Leader Warns of Coup Attempt Amid Unrest

Tblisi(Reuters)–Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze accused opposition leaders on Monday of trying to engineer a coup as he scrambled to shore up support at home and abroad after a week of protests over disputed election results.

The opposition–which has protested almost daily over the results of a November 2 parliamentary poll–continued noisy street demonstrations and launched a hunger strike to add pressure on the veteran leader to resign or hold a new election.

Shevardnadze–popular in the West for his role in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister but increasingly disliked at home–has also tried to warm once icy ties with Russia to avoid a return of violence last seen in Georgia in the early 1990s.

Georgia’s defense minister said on Sunday the political situation was "practically out of control" in a country where Western governmen’s and investors hope for stability to secure an alternative route for oil–avoiding the Gulf.

"A few politicians in Tbilisi have begun a fierce battle for power. They don’t disdain to insult and attack the president and are calling for a violent seizure of power," Shevardnadze told local television in Adzhara–an autonomous region on the Black Sea.

"I call on them to come to their senses–or they may drive themselves and the country into the abyss by their actions," he said after talks with the republic’s leader–Aslan Abashidze.

A huge crowd of supporters welcomed Shevardnadze in Adzhara.

"We have always been together–we are so–and we will be together in the future," Shevardnadze told them.

ELECTION TIE-UP?

Abashidze heads the Revival Union party which lies in second place in the poll so far and Shevardnadze’s alliance with him seemed to be a bid to tie up the election.

"We are attacked from the inside as well as from the outside–but we have the absolute support of the population," Abashidze said.

Shevardnadze is criticized widely for his failure to revive dismal living standards–root out rampant corruption–and reunite the country. The region of Abkhazia remains beyond Tbilisi’s rule and closely allied to Moscow after a violent separatist conflict. South Ossetia is also going its own way.

Late on Sunday–the white-haired Shevardnadze–75–also got a pledge of support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The Russian president also expressed readiness to make decisions–appropriate decisions–which are in the interest of both countries–Georgia and Russia," Shevardnadze’s spokesman–Kakha Imnadze–said after the leaders spoke on the telephone.

Shevardnadze had once pursued closer ties with the West as a way of offsetting Russia’s influence in the country–which is still home to Russian Soviet-era bases and a Russian peacekeeping force in rebel Abkhazia.

The West has strategic and economic interests there as a pipeline is being built from neighboring Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey to take Caspian oil to the Mediterranean Sea.

"It’s a time for private diplomacy…I don’t want to get into advice other than urging the continuation of peaceful political means–avoiding violence," US Ambassador Richard Miles told reporters.

The opposition has said the election–which was expected to indicate who could take over from Shevardnadze when he is due to step down in a 2005 presidential poll–was stolen from them.

Preliminary poll results showed the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia! bloc in the lead with 21.9 percent–ahead of Revival Union with 20.2 percent. An opposition bloc led by a former justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili–was third with 19.6 percent.

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