TBILISI (AFP) — Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili called snap presidential polls Thursday and promised to lift emergency rule soon, as troops patrolled Tbilisi following clashes between security forces and anti-government protestors.
"I took the decision that Georgian presidential elections will be held January 5," Saakashvili said in a televised address to the nation. The elections had been due late 2008.
"You wanted elections early. Have them even earlier," Saakashvili said in a jibe at opponents.
The opposition, which had been demanding Saakashvili's resignation, declared victory.
"Saakashvili has no chance of being re-elected... Saakashvili is done, he's over -- there's no doubt about it," said Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party.
However, the splintered opposition faced a tough election battle with only eight weeks in which to campaign against the strongly pro-Western leader, who describes Wednesday's protests as part of a Russian-inspired coup attempt.
Two opposition leaders, Tsotne Gamsakhurdia and Shalva Natelashvili, were wanted for allegedly spying for Russia and plotting a coup, Georgia's deputy prosecutor general announced on state television.
Saakashvili has come under a barrage of international criticism since imposing a 15-day state of emergency in the wake of Wednesday's clashes, when police used rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators.
Troops kept guard in Tbilisi on Thursday and all private television stations ceased to broadcast news, while demonstrations were banned.
Saakashvili said emergency rule could end soon but did not specify when.
The speaker of parliament, Nino Burdjanadze, a close Saakashvili ally, indicated that this could happen as early as Friday.
In a concession to protestors -- who also wanted parliamentary elections moved from late next year to the spring -- Saakashvili also promised that the date would be decided in a referendum. He did not say when the referendum would take place.
The news was nevertheless warmly received in Washington.
"The United States welcomes the Georgian government's decision to hold early presidential elections and a referendum on timing of parliamentary elections," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Georgia and former ruler Russia, Saakashvili repeated allegations that Moscow was fomenting unrest. He described Wednesday's protests as "an attack on Georgian democracy."
Georgia announced it was expelling three diplomats on spying charges and Russia responded on Thursday by expelling three Georgian diplomats from Moscow.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Georgia was teetering on the brink of "a serious human rights crisis."
Georgia also came under criticism from its Western backers.
NATO, which has infuriated Russia by making Georgia a candidate member, condemned the violence and the emergency measures.
"The imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets in Georgia ... are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement.
France said the violence was "unacceptable."
The United States, which is Saakashvili's main outside backer, has called for "constructive dialogue" between the government and opposition. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said "political differences should be resolved within the democratic institutions."
Holly Cartner, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation, said "the government does not have a carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis."
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