Thousands of Georgian citizens rallied outside their parliament building [AFP]

More than 15,000 opponents of Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, gathered in central Tbilisi on Friday to protest the arrest of an ex-minister who accused 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.

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.

The arrest came two days after Okruashvili, a nationalist who wants Georgia to recover two pro-Russian separatist regions by force, accused the president of allowing massive corruption and ordering the elimination of a prominent businessman.

Opposition leaders described Okruashvili's arrest on charges of money laundering and abuse of power 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.

Goga Khaindrava, a former member of Saakashvili's cabinet who joined the opposition, told the cheering crowd: "The main question today is: them or us ... We came here to stay, they will have to go."

Mounting opposition

"Our main demands are the resignation of the president, the abolition of the presidency and early parliamentary polls," Gia Tortladze, a senior opposition member, said.

Okruashvili had been gaining popularity
as an opposition figure [AFP]

There was no reaction to the protests from the government or from Saakashvili, who has been in New York attending the UN General Assembly. 

Saakashvili sacked Okruashvili at a time when Tbilisi was under pressure from the West to tone down its statements because of fears that conflict with Russia might escalate into war.

Saakashvili's government came to power with pledges of economic reform, pursuit of Nato membership.

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

Okruashvili 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