Source AP ©

US envoy: Georgia must lift state of emergency

Georgian government should immediately lift the state of emergency in order to "restore the momentum of democratic reform" in the former Soviet republic, a U.S. diplomat said Monday.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza flew to Georgia to deliver Washington's tough message to the U.S.-friendly Georgian president after a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations last week.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, Bryza said he had been given the impression that the Georgian government was moving toward lifting the state of emergency "quite quickly."

Bryza, who also has met with opposition leaders, planned to meet with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili before leaving Tuesday. A time and place has not been announced.

Saakashvili introduced a 15-day state of emergency Wednesday after riot troops used clubs and tear gas against opposition protesters in the capital, Tbilisi. Demonstrations were banned, as were all television news broadcasts except on state television.

The president's response to the opposition challenge drew sharp criticism from the West and warnings that it could harm efforts to integrate this small Caucasus nation into the European Union and NATO.

Saakashvili, who has sought to shed Russia's influence, has defended the crackdown on protesters and the state of emergency order as a necessary response to what he described as a coup attempt staged by Moscow. Russia angrily rejected the allegations, and the Georgian opposition denied having any links to the Kremlin.

Georgian authorities on Wednesday evicted three Russian diplomats on spying charges. Russia responded by expelling three Georgian diplomats.

The three Russian diplomats left Tbilisi on Monday.

Saakashvili called early presidential elections for Jan. 5 to defuse the political crisis, the worst he has faced in nearly four years in office.

Four opposition candidates have declared an intention to run, including Badri Patarkatsishvili, a Georgian tycoon seen as the major financial backer of the opposition and driving force behind the anti-government protests

It was unclear whether Patarkatsishvili would be able to campaign. He is believed to be in Israel, and prosecutors said he was under criminal investigation for plotting to overthrow the government.

Patarkatsishvili founded the Imedi television station, which was regarded by authorities as an opposition mouthpiece and was raided by riot police late Wednesday. He recently handed over control of Imedi to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Opposition groups have complained that the ban on independent TV news broadcasts will deny them media access when they already have little time to campaign. Envoys from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also have urged Saakashvili to allow broadcast media to resume operations.