TBILISI, Georgia (AP) -Georgia’s president said Saturday he would not allow foreign pressure to determine when to end a state of emergency imposed this week, though he assured he would lift the restrictions soon.

President Mikhail Saakashvili’s remarks came as a senior U.S. envoy headed to the country to seek reassurances that the emergency measures would soon be lifted, and after a European human rights group criticized the restrictions, including a ban on independent news broadcasts.

“In the near future, the state of emergency in Georgia will be lifted,” Saakashvili told a group of business leaders, reiterating a promise he made Thursday. “This will happen when the situation in the country normalizes and I am sure that our population is safe.”

But he added that he would make the decision on his own and not “on orders of a foreign minister of some country.”

He appears to have defused a standoff with the opposition by calling for an early election in January. The crisis – the most serious political crisis Saakashvili has faced in his four years in office – began Nov. 2, when tens of thousands of people began noisy protests outside parliament to press for changes in the electoral system to give the opposition a bigger voice.

He imposed the state of emergency Wednesday, and security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse anti-government protests. On Friday, ruling-party lawmakers voted to back the order.

Western governments have sharply criticized the crackdown, warning it could harm efforts to integrate the nation into the European Union and NATO.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza, a senior U.S. diplomat, said he would express concern about the violence when he meets with Saakashvili.

“The reports that we are starting to get now are that things went beyond a textbook policing operation,” he told The Associated Press before his departure. “We are hearing more and more reports that people were grabbed from stores or that passers-by were beaten.”

Bryza was scheduled to arrive Saturday and also planned to meet with opposition groups.

Envoys from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also urged Saakashvili to quickly end restrictions on press freedoms and to guarantee a fair presidential election Jan. 5.

Parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, a key ally of the president, met with opposition groups at the residence of Georgia’s Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II – a symbolic gesture in a country where the Orthodox Church plays a significant role.

“We are ready for negotiations, we have very serious suggestions and initiatives. Everything now depends on the other side,” Burdzhanadze said. “I hope everybody will be reasonable and we will have consensus.”

Opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili also stressed the need for dialogue.

“It is very important that after the tragedy that happened in this country that we start something new around the Patriarch,” she said.

Saakashvili’s announcement of the early vote got protesters off the streets and allowed life in Tbilisi return to normal, but will also make it hard for the opposition to challenge his grip on power.

Opposition groups have complained that the ban on independent TV news broadcasts will deny them media access when they already have little time to campaign.

The early vote will also keep two potential challengers out of the race, as they will be a few months shy of the minimum age of 35. The initial election date, late next year, would have allowed at least one of them to run.

Badri Patarkatsishvili, the businessman seen as a driving force behind anti-government protests, announced his bid for the presidency Saturday.

It was unclear whether he would be able to campaign. He is believed to be in Israel, and prosecutors said he was under criminal investigation for plotting to overthrow the government.

Saakashvili’s popularity has declined in recent years because of his failure to tackle poverty in a nation where the average monthly state pension is around $30. Many people have accused him of sidestepping the rule of law and trying to muzzle critics.



Associated Press Writer Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-10-07 1910EST


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