Western observers say Georgian election broadly fair

( Reuters )- Western election observers said on Sunday Georgia's presidential election was broadly fair and Washington urged the opposition, gathering in the capital to protest the result, to show restraint.About 5,000 opposition activists braved the snow to protest the election, which they said Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili had rigged.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote had met most democratic standards but that there were shortcomings.

"While the ... election in Georgia was in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections, significant challenges were revealed which need to be addressed urgently," the OSCE said in a statement.

"I perceive this election as a viable expression of the free choice of the Georgian people, but the future holds immense challenges," senior OSCE election observer Alcee L. Hastings said in the statement.

Georgia lies at the heart of the South Caucasus, which hosts a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and where Russia and the United States are battling for influence.

The opposition said they would hold rolling protests until the vote was overturned, but the qualified endorsement from Western observers may make it harder for the protests to build momentum.

Saakashvili called the election early to try to rebuild his democratic credentials that were left in tatters after he ordered riot police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition supporters protesting against his rule in November.

He swept to power in his ex-Soviet state in a 2003 "Rose Revolution" but his critics say his reforms -- lauded by the West -- have ignored the poor and they accuse him of being an autocrat who pays only lip service to democratic freedoms.

Washington's top emissary to the region, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza , said the opposition should respect the report from Western election observers.

"If the experts determine that the election was not rigged then there is absolutely no justification, and it would be absolutely undemocratic, to claim otherwise," Bryza told Reuters in an interview from Washington before the report was published.

Official results, with votes from 7 percent of polling stations counted, showed Saakashvili won 57.6 percent of the vote and his main rival, wine entrepreneur Levan Gachechiladze , on 22.6 percent.

An exit poll showed Saakashvili with more than half the overall vote, enough to avoid a second-round runoff.

Saakashvili's opponents, who have accused the 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer of economic mismanagement and corruption, said he stole his victory.

"Despite the terror we have won," Levan Gachechiladze screamed into a microphone at the rally in Tbilisi. "Mikhail Saakashvili -- you cannot defeat the Georgian people," he said, his hand clenched in a fist.

Protestors chanted "Georgia, Georgia" and held up one finger in the air, Gachechiladze's number on the ballot paper.

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