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Saakashvili Meets With Georgian Opposition, Refuses To Resign

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TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia's opposition vowed Monday to take protests nationwide after refusing a power-sharing offer from the president, who they say must resign.

A meeting between President Mikhail Saakashvili and four of his most outspoken opponents ended in stalemate. The opposition promised to escalate the monthlong standoff in which thousands have demonstrated outside government buildings, occasionally clashing with police.

Critics say the U.S.-backed Saakashvili led Georgia into the disastrous war with Russia last summer and allege he is backtracking on democratic progress made since he overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in a 2003 peaceful revolution.

"We will keep on fighting for Saakashvili to resign, for the freedom of the press, and for the protection of all our citizens," said Irakli Alasania, an opposition figure who attended the Saakashvili meeting.

Alasania spoke in front of Georgia's parliament building and about 10,000 supporters. The opposition promised to mobilize activists across the country in peaceful protests, including blockades of major highways, until Saakashvili resigns.

"From today, we have the legitimate right to hold public protests that are larger, more urgent and take them all across Georgia," said Levan Gachechiladze, another opposition politician.

Analysts said the opposition lacks a charismatic leader, and its public support is waning.

"The opposition wants to raise the temperature of the protests ... to provoke Saakashvili into using force," said Ramaz Sakvarelidze, a political analyst in Tbilisi. "That would lose him support both within Georgia and in the West."

Saakashvili, who has refused to step down before his term ends in 2013, cast Monday's meeting as a triumph for democracy and invited the opposition to lead a commission to reform the constitution and electoral code.

But he said nobody has the right to infringe the rights of others by obstructing ambulances and preventing children from going to school.

The president's offer could test the opposition's unity. Alasania has said he's open to discussion with the government.

Anti-government protests since April 9 have paralyzed Tbilisi by blocking roads and obstructing entrances to government buildings.

A brief and bloodless mutiny at a tank base outside Tbilisi last week raised questions about Saakashvili's grip on power. The mutiny occurred on the eve of NATO military exercises in Georgia, which Russia has condemned.

Less than two weeks after Russia took formal control of the borders of Georgia's rebel republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a buildup of Russian forces along the de-facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia _ 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital _ was evident.

"It is clear that we have seen the second wave of the increase of forces and armor in the last month," said Shota Utiashvili, head of the Interior Ministry's analytics' department. "These are alarming signs for us."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in an interview Sunday that the NATO exercises, which run through June 3, signal Western support for Saakashvili and "a step backward" in U.S.-Russia relations.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry called Putin's comments "another attempt by Russia to return Georgia to the framework of post-Soviet ambitions and interests."

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Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Tbilisi.

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