Hardliner Abashidze Flees Ajaria

BATUMI (AFP)–Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili triumphantly arrived in the Black Sea region of Ajaria after the province’s renegade leader resigned and flew into exile in dramatic scenes overnight.

Georgian officials announced new elections to choose a replacement for ousted leader Aslan Abashidze and appointed an interim administration to run Ajaria–site of the region’s biggest oil terminal–until a new leader is chosen.

"I congratulate you all," a jubilant Saakashvili said as he arrived in Ajaria to chair a meeting of his ministers.

"We have shown the world that we are a great people. Only we could have staged two bloodless revolutions in six months," he said.

Abashidze’s departure in the early hours of Thursday morning was the final act of last year’s revolution–in which Saakashvili led weeks of protests which forced then President Eduard Shevardnadze to go into retirement.

But the Ajarian chief–a member of Shevardnadze’s old guard–stayed on–and until Thursday–had defied the authority of the capital–Tbilisi–and shown growing separatist tendencies.

Russian news agencies reported that Abashidze had landed in Moscow–accompanied by Russia’s Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov–who had earlier flown to Ajaria to help mediate the conflict.

His departure avoided what many feared would be a bloody separatist war–causing turmoil in Georgia just as Western oil companies are building a multi-billion-dollar pipeline through the country to export oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets.

With Abashidze’s 12-year rule over Ajaria suddenly over and his feared paramilitaries handing in their weapons–Saakashvili’s administration set about filling in the power vacuum.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said on Ajarian television that new elections would be called and announced the creation of a commission–made up of Saakashvili aides and local figures–to run the region in the interim.

But he said that Ajaria’s autonomous status within Georgia–enshrined in law since the start of the last century–would be respected.

"The new elections will be held with due account taken of Ajaria’s special status–which will now be finally clarified by a special constitutional law," Zhvania said.

On the streets of Ajaria’s palm tree-lined capital Batumi Thursday–the last vestiges of Abashidze’s rule were being swept away.

Special forces troops from Tbilisi were in position outside government buildings–instead of the masked men in camouflage fatigues who had propped up Abashidze’s regime.

Drop-off points were set up around the city where civilians could hand in the weapons they were given by Abashidze’s security forces to defend against an invasion from Tbilisi.

Meanwhile some 2,000 Saakashvili supporters were holding a celebratory rally outside the local administration building chanting "Misha!–Misha!"–Saakashvili’s affectionate nickname.

It was a token of their new freedom. Previous opposition rallies in Batumi had been brutally dispersed by police loyal to Abashidze–with dozens of people arrested.

Abashidze is a former Communist official who had ruled his corner of Georgia with a rod of iron and appointed his own relatives to key positions.

His fate was sealed this week when thousands of his opponents took to the streets to demand his resignation–defying the police.

At the same time Saakashvili–the 36-year-old who came to power in last year’s "rose revolution" in the Georgian capital–introduced direct presidential rule and Georgian special forces were dropped in to Ajaria by helicopter.

Abashidze appeared to have made use of an offer from the Georgian president of safe passage out of the country for him and his family if he agreed to go quietly.

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