No headway in Georgia talks

TBILISI: Talks between President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgia's opposition ended on Monday with no breakthrough in resolving a month-long political stand-off that has raised fears of instability.

Opposition leaders said the talks with Saakashvili had failed to make any progress, more than a month into anti-government demonstrations that have disrupted life in the capital.

"Saakashvili thinks that everything is very well (in the country) and we think that everything is very bad.... There was no other result of this meeting," opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, a former presidential candidate, told journalists after the talks.

He later told several thousand protesters outside Georgia's parliament that protest actions would become more "intense" but provided no details.

Saakashvili said the talks had been an important step forward despite the failure to reach any agreements.

"It is good that the meeting occurred and we agreed that dialogue should continue. This is of course a step forward," he said in a televised statement after the talks.

He reiterated his government's offer to work with the opposition on constitutional, electoral and judicial reforms, and said he was "ready to see different opposition representatives in various responsible positions."

Opposition leader Irakli Alasania, a former UN envoy, said deep divisions remained after the talks but agreed they had been a positive step.

"The differences are still there, we have different views on how the crisis can be resolved," he said.

"It is very important that this meeting took place.... It was very important to discuss this in person with the president," said Alasania, who is considered a moderate.

The talks are testing the unity of the diverse coalition of opposition groups organising the protests.

Some opposition leaders, such as former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, say the talks are pointless and that only Saakashvili's resignation will resolve the crisis. Others, including Alasania, have said they are ready to listen to the president.

The protests, which began on April 9, have been the biggest demonstrations against Saakashvili's rule since a war last August with Russia over the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Opposition leaders offered talks with the government last week after riot police clashed with protesters in the first serious outbreak of violence since the protests began. Police said nobody was seriously injured.

The clashes and a brief bloodless military mutiny last week have raised fears of wider unrest in Georgia, which is currently hosting controversial NATO military exercises that have infuriated Russia.

Saakashvili has hinted that Russia is trying to stir up trouble in its southern neighbour and has had a hand in the protests.

The opposition accuses Saakashvili of mishandling the war with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since coming to power after the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.

About 20,000 opposition supporters rallied in central Tbilisi on Saturday. Protesters have set up dozens of mock jail cells, blocked main streets in the capital for weeks and threatened to expand protest actions by blocking key highways.

Tensions have increased in recent days but officials have vowed there would be no repeat of events in November 2007 when riot police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters.