Four precincts results annulled in Georgia

( dpa ) - Georgia's election commission annulled results in four precincts Wednesday due to fraud, after declaring incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili's victory in bitterly contested presidential elections.

The Central Election Commission's announcement late Wednesday, with 98.8 per cent of the votes tallied, was the first sign giving credence to the opposition's accusation of vote manipulation.

In two precincts voting results were cancelled due to dissappearances of ballots. An electoral commission member has been detained on charges of ballot stuffing in another precinct.

The Interior Ministry will investigate these incidents, and the case of election commission members carrying home ballots, including urns, Interfax quoted the CEC as saying.

Elections Commission chief Levan Tarknishvili said the CEC's decision to annul results in four precincts would not influence the total official results.

Saakashvili won with 52.21 per cent, the election commission website showed Wednesday, just narrowly making the 50-per-cent needed to avoid a run-off vote.

But his nearest challenger Levan Ganchechiladze, who gathered 25.26 per cent of the vote, has refused to accept the voting results alleging fraud.

Ganchechiladze claims that based on the opposition's own polling results Saakashvili "won only 41 per cent," and demands a new round of voting.

On Wednesday, Ganchechiladze's brother, a pop singer, began a hunger strike with other supporters on Wednesday, news agency Itar-tass reported.

Ganchechiladze said Wednesday he was "saving his strength" for the second of daily pickets at Georgia's public television station until he was offered a voice on air.

In a late-night broadcast on Rustavi-TV Tuesday, Saakashvili took a conciliatory line, saying his future cabinet would be "much more all-inclusive."

"No one can ignore the opinions of those who didn't vote for us," Saakashvili said, adding he was ready to compromise with opponents.

Saakashvili called a snap election to counter criticism over police crackdowns on opposition protests in November, but Wednesday's results were in sharp contrast to his soaring ratings after Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution.

Despite some reservations, European election observers gave the vote a clean bill of health, corroborated by the United States, which counts Georgia an ally in Iraq and has been generous with foreign aid.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, long courted by Saakashvili for membership, said Wednesday the vote represented "an important step in the democratic development of Georgia."

"Nevertheless, all irregularities ascertained by the international observers should be cleared before the parliamentary elections planned in the spring," NATO speaker James Appathurai said in Brussels.

Moscow, which is vying with Washington for influence in Georgia, sharply criticized the vote and the evaluations of Western observers.

In television comments Saakashvili promised to invite President Vladimir Putin to his inauguration in a move to mend relations with Russia, which opposes his pro-Western stance as well as moves to reintegrate Georgia's breakaway regions bordering Russia.

The mountainous Caucus republic is of growing strategic importance lying across oil pipelines to Europe and close to Iraq, and the vivid protest by the opposition coalition of nine parties has raised fear of prolonged instability.

Addressing Saakashvili, Ganchechiladze said: "I won't stop until you murder me."

On Tuesday, Ganchechiladze led a group of protestors that burst into the CEC offices, accusing Tarknishvili: "You're guilty of falsifying the election. You've stolen half a million votes."

Tarknishvili earlier brushed off the allegations as "groundless," but took a softer line Wednesday night saying the CEC was prepared to look into all the opposition's complaints of voting irregularities.

He added however that "there are concrete procedures in such situations and lodging of complaints should be conducted professionally and not on emotions."

The election chief's early announcement of Saakashvili's win after Saturday's vote sparked a 7,000-strong protest in the capital Tbilisi.

The nine-party opposition coalition on Wednesday promised a law suit and larger demonstrations from January 13 to 18, threatening a repeat of the November unrest which caused Saakashvili to impose emergency rule.

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