Opposition bolstered as doubts cast on Georgia vote

( dpa ) - Opponents of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili won support in their rejection of the election Thursday as fraud scandals cast doubt over the vote that saw him re-elected.

The head of the European monitoring mission confirmed that fraud had taken place on Thursday - a day after Georgia's election commission annulled results in four precincts in the first official recognition of voting irregularities.

"There was crass, negligent and deliberate falsification during the vote counting," said Dieter Boden of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Early estimations by European election observers, corroborated by the United States, had handed a clean bill of health to the elections, despite minor reservation.

Russia, which resents growing Western influence under Saakashvili's rule, has sharply criticized the elections and called Western evaluations politically motivated.

The head of Russia's International Affairs Committee, Duma deputy Konstantin Kosachyov charged that vote observers had "lied about how the elections were democratic and conforming with international standards."

Responding to post-election overture by Saakashvili intent on mending relations with Russia, which has imposed economic sanctions on the country, officials admonished the incumbent not to count his chickens before they hatched.

Russian parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov insisted, "Let us wait to see official results of the elections."

"We remember how election results differ from one day to another in CIS member countries" Gryzlov said, referring to prolonged instability in neighbouring Ukraine.

With barely 2 per cent of the vote left to count, Saakashvili won with 52.21 per cent, the election commission website showed Thursday, just narrowly making the 50-per-cent needed to avoid a run-off vote.

Elections commission chief Levan Tarknishvili said that the decision to cancel results over cases of ballot stuffing and disappearances "would not influence the overall result due."

Where Tarknishvili had earlier brushed off opposition fraud allegations as "groundless," he took a softer line Wednesday night, saying all complaints of voting irregularities would be investigated. The strongest opposition challenger Levan Ganchechiladze, who garnered 25.26 per cent of the vote, has refused to accept the voting results, saying, "I will not stop until you murder me!"

The opposition has announced mass rallies for January 13, when official final results will be published, if there is no ballot recount.

But the nine-party opposition coalition won a battle Thursday when Georgia's public television station invited Ganechiladze to appear on a primetime news programme later in the evening.

The decision was made after Gachechiladze led daily pickets of about 100 supporters outside the station, and supporters, including his pop star brother, threatened to go on hunger strike if he were not granted a voice on air.

The opposition strong line has raised fears among Western allies that the situation could degenerate into a repeat of the November violence that caused Saakashvili to impose emergency rule before calling snap elections.

The mountainous Caucus republic's growing strategic importance, lying across oil pipelines to Europe and contributing to the war in Iraq, has made it the site of a tussle for influence between the US and Russia in recent years.

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