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Saakashvili Strikes Bargain in Adzharia

BATUMI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the lifting of a blockade on the country's defiant Adzharia region Thursday in return for a series of measures giving the central government control over the recalcitrant region.

A smiling Saakashvili emerged from 3 1/2 hours of talks with Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze at his residence in Batumi, the region's capital, claiming success in resolving a standoff that earlier in the week had threatened to spill over into civil war.

Saakashvili agreed to lift the blockade of Adzharia, imposed on Monday, at midnight Thursday, in return for a pledge from Abashidze to give Tbilisi a bigger say in the region's affairs and to guarantee fair parliamentary elections in the republic.

Abashidze agreed to allow local opposition parties, which are also Saakashvili's allies, to participate in the country's parliamentary elections, set for March 28.

Abashidze's press service said the Adzharian leader had agreed to the establishment of "a system of transparent financial control" for Adzharia and to the appointment a presidential envoy to the region to oversee Batumi's port and customs.

The two sides also agreed to future talks on amending the country's constitution to allow greater regional autonomy and guarantees of media freedom, the press service said.

Saakashvili said that Abashidze had also agreed to review cases of alleged political prisoners and to remove armed checkpoints within Adzharia and between Adzharia and the rest of Georgia.

The agreement came as a relief to officials representing human rights watchdog the Council of Europe, who will now observe the elections in Adzharia.

(The Moscow Times 19.iii.04)

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