US Envoy Urges Calm as Georgia Tensions Rise

TBILISI (AFP)–A top US diplomat on Thursday said Washington has urged both Georgian authorities and opposition forces to avoid violence as fears of unrest grow ahead of anti-government protests next month.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza held unexpected talks with officials and opposition leaders in Tbilisi late Wednesday, returning again for the second time in less than two weeks.

His visit came after 10 opposition supporters were arrested on weapons charges this week and police released video recordings they say show plans to use violence during the protests.

The arrests and a grenade attack on a police car this month have raised fears that the protests, due to start on April 9, could spark civil unrest similar to the violence and civil war that wracked Georgia in the 1990s.

"Our message throughout has of course been that the right to protest peacefully must be respected and that violence is the enemy of democracy," Bryza told AFP by telephone from the Azerbaijani capital Baku.

He said he had been assured that both the government and opposition understood that violence was in the interests of neither side.

"April 9 is going to be a big moment, a defining moment politically… They all understand that violence would be disastrous for all sides," Bryza said.

Bryza met with two prominent opposition leaders: former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whose supporters were among those arrested, and Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian envoy to the United Nations.

He also met with Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria, a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Bryza said he had spoken with Burjanadze about the allegations surrounding some of her supporters and that she welcomed an investigation.

"They have to be investigated. These are really serious allegations," he said. "She has been one of the constructors of democracy in Georgia and would welcome a judicial process."

Burjanadze, who has accused the government of launching a smear campaign to discredit her, told Rustavi-2 television that she had informed Bryza of the recent developmen’s involving her supporters.

"I want the reality of everything that is happening to be clear," she said.

Alasania said he had told Bryza that while the opposition welcomed US efforts to support democracy in Georgia, Washington should not be directly involved in resolving domestic political conflicts.

"Of course serious American support for the development of democracy in Georgia is necessary, but I explained that it is up to Georgians, through dialogue between the opposition and the government, to find a way out of this," he told Rustavi-2.

Bryza said he had decided to hold the meetings during a stopover in Tbilisi between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where he is engaged in efforts to resolve the conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region.

Pressure has been mounting on Saakashvili since Georgia’s war last year with Russia, with many here, including some top former allies, accusing him of mishandling the conflict.

Opponents have vowed to continue protesting after April 9 until Saakashvili resigns and calls early elections.

The US has been a strong supporter of Georgia since Saakashvili came to power after the peaceful, pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003.

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