Georgian President Imposes Direct Presidential Rule in Rebel Ajaria

TBILISI (Combined Sources)–Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili imposed direct presidential rule over the separatist region of Ajaria–amid a tense standoff with the province’s renegade leader Aslan Abashidze.

"I am introducing direct presidential rule in Ajaria," the Georgian president said in a nationally televised address.

Saakashvili pledged to guarantee the safety of Abashidze and his team if the renegade leader bowed to pressure and resigned.

"I take upon myself full responsibility and give a guarantee of safety to Aslan Abashidze–but only if he voluntarily leaves his post. I am also offering guarantees to Abashidze’s family. If they wish to remain on Georgian territory then they will have full guarantees for their safety," Saakashvili said.

The Georgian president said that he contacted Washington and Moscow to see if they were willing to offer Abashidze asylum.

"I spoke with President (Vladimir) Putin and the White House and asked them to give political asylum to Abashidze and his family. We have not yet received an answer to that question–but we have said that we would not seek their extradition back to Georgia to stand trial."

"We are ready to be magnanimous in victory and forgive everything but the time to disarm has arrived," he said.

Georgian government spokesman Guga Sulkhanishvili said on Wednesday–that a top Russian official is flying to Georgia for talks on the crisis in Georgia rebel region of Ajaria. "The Secretary of the Russian Security Council Igor Ivanov…will fly to Tbilisi and will hold talks with the government of Georgia."

Ivanov was Russian foreign minister until he was switched to head Putin’s top security body in a government reshuffle in March. He played a key role in mediating a confrontation in Georgia last November which culminated in the resignation of veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Crowds of protesters in the port of Batumi–their ran’s swollen by uniformed policemen and state media workers who switched sides to join a 5,000-strong rally against the rebel leader–pointed to Abashidze’s fast crumbling authority.

As the groundswell of protest rose–the Georgian government said Ajaria’s Black Sea oil port at Batumi had been planted with explosives and the consequences could be catastrophic.

Abashidze’s resignation would underpin Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s popularity and authority.

Saakashvili–who came to power after a revolution last year–has made reining in rebel regions a priority–ordering Abashidze to reform or stand down.

"You have two or three hours to obey the president of Georgia and avoid bloodshed," Security Council head Vano Merebishvili told state television.

Unlike the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia–Ajaria has never sought formal independence from the government but is outside government control.

Georgia ordered Abashidze to bow to central rule by May 12–after his local militia blew up bridges linking Ajaria with the Georgian heartland.

Abashidze–65 and in power for the past 14 years has so far–ignored all calls for his resignation and instead has reinforced a state of emergency–closing universities and sending police to disperse demonstrations.

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