Georgian president backs down, resigns from office

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned Sunday, after the opposition threatened to seize his residence and his support began to crack, with soldiers joining tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of the capital.

The crowd of protesters massed in front of parliament erupted into cheers and waved flags after opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili went on national television and announced the president's resignation.

Shevardnadze, the leader of this ex-Soviet republic for a decade, then went on television to explain his move.

"I realized that what is happening may end with spilled blood if I use my rights," he said. "I have never betrayed my people and I decided that I should resign."

Asked where he was going to live, Shevardnadze said, "At home."

The announcement appeared to spell the end for a leader who has depicted himself as the key to maintaining security in a nation at a crossroads strategic for both the United States and Russia.

The nation of 5 million people lies between the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the ports of the Black Sea and is a side stage in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Russia has military units stationed in Georgia, and U.S. troops are training Georgian forces to uproot Islamic insurgents from neighboring Chechnya taking refuge in Georgia.

But discontent among the population has been growing over poverty, corruption and crime. The tipping point came with Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, which the opposition and the United States said were rigged.

After days of protests, opposition demonstrators took over parliament on Saturday, driving Shevardnadze out of the chamber, and declared an interim government.

During the day Sunday, the crowd in front of parliament grew to some 50,000 people, dancing and singing. Some soldiers defected and joined the protests, embraced and lifted into the air by jubilant demonstrators.

Earlier Sunday, Shevardnadze, backed by the head of police, threatened to enforce a state of emergency order if the protesters did not leave parliament.

But the 75-year-old president's support was crumbling. The defense minister said the military would not intervene in the standoff. Shevardnadze had to fire his top security aide, Tedo Dzhaparidze, who on Friday publicly acknowledged fraud in the elections.

The United States, which Shevardnadze has long courted for warmer ties, offered little support, saying only that both sides should avoid violence.

The resignation came after Saakashvili went to Shevardnadze's residence and delivered an ultimatum: resign or face a mass march on the home.

"We will go and take the last presidential residence," Saakashvili told protesters before the visit, claiming "almost the entire army has taken the opposition side."

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov joined Saakashvili at the residence, though he left without speaking to reporters. He spent Sunday shuttling between the president and the opposition, trying to resolve the country's political crisis.

"The president has accomplished a courageous act," Saakashvili said afterward. "By his resignation, he avoided spilling blood in the country ... History will judge him kindly."

Saakashvili said opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze would serve as acting president until new elections are held. Zurab Zhania, another key opposition figure, said parliamentary elections would be held within 45 days.

It was a swift ascension for an opposition that brought tens of thousands out into the streets against Shevardnadze.

With more demonstrators streaming into the square before parliament during the day Sunday, Saakashvili urged them to build on Saturday's seizure of parliament and the president's office by taking over state television and other government buildings.

Demonstrators embraced a unit of 50 Defense Ministry soldiers who arrived in the square to join the opposition movement. Protesters heaved some of the soldiers into the air in jubilation.

Independent Rustavi-2 television showed another unit, this one of 120 National Guard troops, mingling with the protesters. The soldiers' unidentified commander said the troops pledged loyalty to Burdzhanadze, the interim president.

Georgi Shengilia, the commander of an elite Defense Ministry special forces battalion stationed on the outskirts of Tbilisi, said that he would not fulfill Shevardnadze's orders.

Before the resignation, Defense Minister David Tevzadze declared that he remained loyal to Shevardnadze but acknowledged the president was not in control.

"There is a legitimate government, but parallel to that there exists an organ, I don't know how to call it, which is controlling developments," Tevzadze said.

He called for a political solution to the stand-off, saying the military would not resort to force -- and had not been ordered by Shevardnadze to put down the opposition.

"On the contrary, I have received warnings that there should be no action that could lead to bloodshed," he told reporters. "The state of emergency doesn't envisage the use of military force to establish order."