Thousands Demand Vote Recount at Tbilisi Rally

TBILISI, Georgia -- Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied Sunday across Tbilisi to protest what they denounced as massive vote fraud that helped Mikheil Saakashvili win a second presidential term.

Wearing opposition trademark white scarves and chanting anti-Saakashvili slogans, protesters gathered in downtown Tbilisi to demand a recount of the Jan. 5 election. Organizers said about 100,000 turned out.

Final official results released Sunday said Saakashvili won with 53.47 percent of the vote, while main opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze scored 25.67 percent.

Gachechiladze and his supporters denounced the official count as a sham, saying it reflected a massive official effort to rig the vote. They said officials responsible for ballot tinkering must be prosecuted and a runoff involving Saakashvili and Gachechiladze be held.

"Georgia doesn't have a legitimate president," Gachechiladze said at the rally. "If we stand together, we will win.

"He and other opposition leaders also demanded regular access to state television, which has focused on covering Saakashvili and his allies.

"Misha, we have come," shouted Gachechiladze, calling the president by his nickname, and the crowd repeated the chant.

The observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave the election a mixed assessment. It called the vote a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia, but pointed to an array of violations. Russia, which vies with the West for influence in Georgia, sharply criticized the vote.

Saakashvili, meanwhile, sounded a conciliatory note toward Russia on Saturday, saying he regretted that bilateral relations had been spoiled during his first term in office.

"We believe that we should unfreeze our relations, particularly during this ... winter that is unusually cold even for Georgia," Saakashvili said at his first news conference since being re-elected. "I think that one of my main regrets is that during my first presidential term relations with Russia were spoiled."

Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have long been troubled, in particular over Georgia's accusations that Russia is undermining its sovereignty by supporting separatists in two breakaway regions.