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Four years after the 2003 "rose revolution" that propelled
Four years after the 2003 "rose revolution" that propelled him to power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is facing the same problems as his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

However, on Wednesday, Saakashvili showed that he was unwilling to share the fate of Shevardnadze, who resigned as a direct result of street demonstrations, clamping down harshly on opposition protests that had lasted six days.

Saakashvili followed this up by proposing on Thursday early presidential elections along with a simultaneous parallel referendum on parliamentary elections. The move has been seen as an attempt to snatch the political initiative from his opponents.

On Wednesday, after hundreds of riot police with shields and batons had broken up a rally outside the Georgian parliament, opposition supporters staged a new protest on the city's Rike Square. The police again employed harsh methods to dispel the crowd, including rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protesters were demanding President Saakashvili's resignation and early elections. A total of 508 people were injured in the clashes, and 94 protesters remain in hospital, the country's Health Ministry said on Thursday.

Saakashvili said on Thursday in a televised address: "I would like to hold a plebiscite alongside the presidential elections, and let the people decide for themselves when parliamentary elections should be held - in the spring or fall of 2008."

Earlier in the day, the president had said that early presidential elections would be held on January 5, 2008. "I am cutting my presidential term of my own will for a second time, and I do it in the full belief that Georgia is a democratic country. I think the people will demonstrate their will on January 5," he said.

Presidential elections had previously been moved forward to coincide with parliamentary elections due to be held at the end of 2008.

Saakashvili also said he was "giving the opposition a chance to prove its power."

Georgia's last presidential elections were held on January 4, 2004, and the presidential term was to be for five years.

Saakashvili said he was urging early elections because he needs a mandate to cope with pressure. "I need an unambiguous mandate from you to cope with pressure on the country, to cope with attempts to annex our territories," he said.

He called on international organizations to send the maximum amount of observers to the presidential elections, saying the elections would be "democratic and transparent."

Georgian opposition leaders said they welcomed Saakashvili's decision to call early presidential elections for January 5, 2008.

According to a parliamentary procedure, the president's initiative on new terms of presidential elections will demand an amendment to the Constitution. After the amendments are approved, Saakashvili will have to voluntarily resign 45 days prior to the election date. His powers will be handed over to Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze.

In a continuation of recent tension between Russia and Georgia, the Russian Foreign Ministry has ordered three Georgian Embassy officials to leave the country in response to Georgian plans to expel Russian diplomats.

Spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told journalists that Georgia's charge d'affaires had been summoned to the ministry and informed of the decision.

"The Georgian diplomat was told that the Russian Federation, in response to unfriendly actions from Georgia, had decided to declare three senior diplomats at the Georgian Embassy in Moscow personae non gratae," Kamynin said.

Before announcing the current 15-day state of emergency on Wednesday, President Saakashvili blamed "high-ranking officials in Russia's special services" for the recent unrest in the country, and said several Russian diplomats would be expelled from Georgia for spying.

Kamynin also said Georgia's accusations that Russia had stirred up unrest in Tbilisi are an attempt to hide the leadership's helplessness in dealing with their internal problems.

President Saakashvili said in a TV address to the nation on Wednesday that Russia's special services were behind recent events in Tbilisi, adding that Georgian special services had information that an alternative Georgian government had been formed in Russia.

"This is merely an attempt by the Georgian authorities to hide their helplessness in resolving their interior affairs," Kamynin said.

Schools and universities in Georgia's capital canceled classes for Thursday and Friday, following the president's declaration of a state of emergency.

As relative calm returned to the streets of Tbilisi following the banning of demonstrations under the current stage of emergency, Georgia's prosecutors accused two opposition leaders of espionage and plotting a coup, a deputy prosecutor general said on Thursday. Criminal proceedings have been launched against them.

Georgia's state television said however that neither of the two men - Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili and the son of the first post-Soviet Georgian president Tsotne Gamsakhurdiya - had been detained, as police had been unable to locate them.

Prosecutors searched Natelashvili's office on Thursday afternoon and confiscated documents. Natelashvili's press secretary said she was unaware of the whereabouts of her boss.

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