Saakashvili said that 'ill-wishers' were seeking to sow chaos in Georgia [EPA]

Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, has defended the arrest of a former minister who had accused him of plotting murder, as opponents vowed to continue protests that have drawn thousands to the streets.
 
"Okruashvili's allegations are false and he knows it very well," Saakashvili said in televised remarks after interrupting a foreign trip to return to the capital Tbilisi.
 
He said: "Georgia, unlike many other places, enjoys freedom of the press.  Everyone can say whatever they want and as much as they want. But you cannot blackmail people who have a clear conscience."
 
Okruashvili's supporters accuse the president of trying to silence a potential rival and said the arrest undermined  Saakashvili's credentials as a democratic reformer.
 
In a clear reference to tensions with Moscow, Saakashvili also said that "ill-wishers" were seeking to sow chaos in Georgia.
 
Later on Saturday, the president travelled to a Georgian-controlled area on the border of the breakaway region of Abkhazia, where he hinted that Russia had a hand in the turmoil.
 
He said: "Georgia has ill-wishers who wait for any mistake to devour us. Our ill-wishers know very well  that when Georgia is united, it is invincible. But they know there is always a percentage of traitors they can use... to cast Georgia into chaos."
 
Demonstrations
 
On Friday, more than 15,000 opponents of Saakashvili gathered in central Tbilisi to protest against the arrest of Okruashvili who accuses Saakashvili of corruption and plotting to kill a businessman.

Protesters shouting "Long live Georgia!" and "New president!" pushed back police lines in front of parliament.

The rally was the biggest anti-government protest since Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, came to power in the ex-Soviet state in a peaceful revolution in 2003.

Okruashvili had been gaining popularity
as an opposition figure [AFP]
Opposition parties called for the protest after the arrest on Thursday evening of former defence minister Irakly Okruashvili, a long-time ally of the president who was sacked last year.
 
Opposition leaders described his arrest as the "start of political terror".

They said they would form a coordination council and expand their activities outside Tbilisi.

About 20 buses with police in full riot gear gathered near the parliament in response to the protest, but the crowd dispersed peacefully at the end of the rally.

Nationalist platfom

Okruashvili has attacked Russia for propping up the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and promised military action to re-establish Tbilisi's control there.

He joined the opposition and set up his party this year after several allies were arrested on corruption charges.

Saakashvili's opponents have so far posed no political threat to him.

But analysts say that Okruashvili has been gaining political weight in the past few months and could turn into a powerful political figure.

Georgia is due to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections towards the end of 2008.

Source: Agencies