Vote Count Confirms Victory for Saakashvili

TBILISI, Georgia -- Several hundred opposition supporters protested Wednesday, emphasizing their claims of fraud in Georgia's presidential vote, as the top electoral official said a nearly complete ballot count confirmed Mikheil Saakashvili's re-election.

Some 300 to 400 protesters gathered in the snow outside the headquarters of the main state television station in Tbilisi, demanding air time for opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze and a runoff vote pitting him against Saakashvili.

"We won the election, but the results have been falsified," Gachechiladze told the crowd. "We will not let them steal our votes."

The opposition said it would hold a much larger street protest Sunday, raising the possibility of further confrontation.

Saakashvili called the presidential election last Saturday, a year ahead of schedule, after ordering a violent crackdown on opposition protesters in November -- moves aimed to maintain his grip on power and stave off a mounting opposition challenge.

In a preliminary count of votes from all but 30 of 3,512 polling precincts, Saakashvili had 52.21 percent, Central Elections Commission chief Levan Tarkhnishvili said. The elections commission had initially announced Saakashvili's victory a day after the Saturday election, based on a less complete count.

Gachechiladze was second with 25.26 percent, Tarkhnishvili said.

By winning more than half the votes cast, Saakashvili avoided a runoff against his rival.

The remaining 30 precincts accounted for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of votes and will not affect the outcome, Tarkhnishvili said. He also said a review of complaints, which must be carried out before the final results are announced 10 days after the vote, would not significantly change the outcome.

The opposition claims that the government stole more than 100,000 votes cast for Gachechiladze and is demanding a runoff. The Central Elections Commission said Gachechiladze received about 500,000 votes and Saakashvili a little over 1 million.

Saakashvili said late Tuesday that opposition representatives would be invited to join a planned commission in charge of ensuring that his campaign promises were fulfilled, and suggested that the opposition could gain representation in the Cabinet.

"We won't agree to a compromise," Amiran Makharadze, 40, a scientist, said at Wednesday's protest. "The truth is, Saakashvili lost. We want a second round."

Gachechiladze had said he and others would go on a hunger strike Wednesday, but at the rally he said supporters, including his brother Giorgy, a well-known singer, would do so instead. He said he needed to maintain his own strength "to continue our struggle."

n Georgian opposition leader Irakly Okruashvili was taken into custody by French authorities upon arrival in France on Wednesday, the French Interior Ministry said, Reuters reported.

Okruashvili, a former defense minister whose allegations of corruption against Saakashvili sparked anti-government protests last year, was arrested in Germany on a Georgian warrant in November. His lawyer said he had applied for asylum before his detention.