Opposition leaders have called for early elections [AFP]

Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, has refused to resign after three days of mass protests against his government.

He accused opposition leaders of organising a "campaign of lies" against him in order to weaken the Georgian state.

In his first public comments since opposition forces began rallying outside the parliament building in the Gerogian capital Tblisi, Saakashvili said his opponents wanted to turn the country back to the era of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

"In Shevardnadze's time these forces did well in Georgia, but after we came to power these forces have lost their beneficial positions," he told Georgian Television.

"Therefore these forces as of late have begun a campaign to weaken the Georgian presidency and the state," he said.

The president rejected calls to hold early elections.

Political crisis

"Both legislative and presidential elections will be held in the fall of 2008 as defined by the constitution. Nobody can blackmail us," he said.
 

Saakashvili says his opponents
have organised a "campaign of lies" [AP]

The president was speaking as an estimated 10,000 people gathered outside parliament for a third day of protests.

"Where is our president? Why he is hiding?" David Berdzenishvili, a leader of the Republican Party, said at the rally prior to Saakashvili’s television appearance.

"He hasn't shown up for several days because he is afraid of his own people, he is afraid to look into people's eyes."

Four years after assuming power in the so-called Rose Revolution, Saakashvili is facing the worst political crisis of his presidency.

Opposition leaders were discussing how to continue the protests.

Dzhondi Bagaturia, who heads one opposition group, said protesters may try to arrange pickets outside government buildings to apply psychological pressure on civil servants not to go to work.

Russia dispute

Popular discontent with Saakashvili grew after Irakli Okruashvili, a former defence minister, accused the president of corruption and plotting to murder a prominent Georgian businessman.

Okruashvili was arrested, but then freed on multimillion-dollar bail after he retracted his allegations.

Saakashvili denies any human rights abuses and announced on Sunday that he would run for a second term in the presidential election scheduled for late next year despite the current protests.

He lashed out at Russia, suggesting the neighbouring country had a hand in the current unrest.

"This campaign of lies against the Georgian president benefits certain forces in Russia - those who want to weaken Georgia," he said.

The comments came as Georgia's military chief of staff alleged that Russian military planes crossed into Georgian airspace on Sunday.

Russia denied a border violation had occurred.

Protesters have said they will not leave until their demands are met [AFP]

Source: Agencies