Georgia in political turmoil after arrest of opposition figure

( AFP ) - Ex-Soviet Georgia plunged into political turmoil on Friday following the arrest of a former defence minister who had turned against President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Irakli Okruashvili, once a key figure in Georgia's pro-Western government, was arrested on Thursday after alleging Saakashvili had ordered the killing of high-profile figures.

Georgian officials have said the allegations are "baseless and untrue."

Critics accused Saakashvili of trying to silence a potential rival and said the arrest of Okruashvili, who heads the Movement for United Georgia party, undermined the president's credentials as a democratic reformer.

Saakashvili delivered a fiery speech at the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday in which he accused Russia of "subversion" in Georgia and touted his government's democratic record.

Georgia's aspirations to join the European Union and NATO have infuriated Moscow, which has cut travel links with Georgia and imposed a ban on key Georgian exports.

Giorgi Khaindrava, a former senior minister who was fired last year, said Okruashvili's arrest showed Georgia was in a political crisis and that early elections should be called.

"A criminal organisation led by Saakashvili is in power in Georgia," he said. "The only solution would be the resignation of the president, the dismissal of parliament and early elections."

But Giga Bokeria, a senior official in the ruling National Movement party, defended Okruashvili's arrest, saying "neither former officials nor acting ones... are above the law."

Though prosecutors have said the charges against Okruashvili relate to his time as defence minister, Bokeria indicated that his recent statements were behind the arrest.

"Okruashvili made shameful false accusations. The courts must decide whether he is guilty or innocent. The law prevails in Georgia," he said.

Reacting to opposition calls for mass demonstrations, Bokeria also said that authorities would "respond adequately to any calls for the forcible overthrow of the government."

Opposition parties were planning to hold a demonstration outside Georgia's parliament building later on Friday to denounce the arrest.

Okruashvili was arrested at the headquarters of his opposition party on Thursday and charged with extortion, money laundering, abuse of power and negligence during his time as defence minister.

Saakashvili fired Okruashvili in November 2006 after the minister made hawkish statements regarding the return of two Russia-backed separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to Georgian control.

Okruashvili re-emerged this week with an announcement he was forming an opposition party, accusing Saakashvili of corruption and alleging the president had ordered him to "liquidate some important and influential personalities," including a prominent businessman.

He produced no evidence to support his allegations, but they caused a political storm in Georgia.

Saakashvili, who was in New York this week to speak at the UN General Assembly, has not responded to the accusations.

Okruashvili had been in Saakashvili's inner circle since before the mass protests of the 2003 Rose Revolution propelled Saakashvili to power. A lawyer by training, Okruashvili also served as prosecutor general and interior minister before being ousted from the government.

Georgia is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections next year and analysts said Okruashvili had the credibility and power base to pose a threat to Saakashvili in the polls.

Saakashvili has cultivated close ties with Western countries, in particular the US, which has provided substantial economic and military aid to the small mountainous state on Russia's southern border.

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