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Shevardnadze Sacks Cabinet

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze decided Thursday to fire his entire Cabinet, officials said as a security scandal erupted into a full-fledged political crisis.

Zurab Zhvania, the parliamentary speaker, said that Shevardnadze's representative in parliament had informed him that "the president has made a decision to oust the entire Cabinet."

"Our task now is to ease tension in the city and prompt the demonstrators to disperse," Zhvania told the parliament.

The parliamentary representative, Valery Khaburzania, confirmed that he had conveyed Shevardnadze's decision to sack the Cabinet.

Zhvania said the president had asked deputy ministers to fill in for their bosses temporarily.

The political crisis began earlier in the week when police raided the independent Rustavi-2 television channel, a sharp critic of the president.

The move, widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the media, brought thousands of protesters onto the street. The man who ordered the raid, Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze, lost his job.

Thirty security agents tried to search the Rustavi 2 offices Tuesday, acting on a warrant saying the television station had evaded taxes. But they were denied entry by the company director, and the attempted raid brought protests the state was trying to silence critical media.

Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze handed in his resignation Wednesday, but parliamentary members said that was not enough. They also demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze and Prosecutor General Gii Meparishvili, and some called for the entire government to step down - sparking protests among their opponents that they were trying to engineer a state coup.

Appearing before parliament on Thursday, Targamadze tersely announced that he had submitted his resignation to the president. He then walked out of the chamber.

Prosecutor-General Georgy Meparishvili told the parliament that he, too, was resigning. He was not part of the Cabinet.

Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, said in a live, late-night broadcast Wednesday that if parliament, which must approve the resignations, forced the interior minister and prosecutor to go, he would consider himself "guilty as well" and step down. But he did not announce his own resignation on Thursday.

The political crisis has grown out of a struggle building for months between Shevardnadze and Zhvania. Were Shevardnadze to make good on his threat to resign, Zhvania would become Georgia's leader according to the country's constitution.

On Thursday, however, Zhvania said he, too, would resign.

"The president must keep his office," Zhvania told the demonstrators outside parliament. "We are not struggling for power."

Shevardnadze, who was Georgia's Communist boss, has brought the nation through civil wars but has struggled with crime and corruption as president of independent Georgia. While critics say he has lost much of his authority in recent years, Georia has no other politicians of his caliber and his resignation would send the impoverished country into political turmoil.

Shevardnadze on Wednesday accepted Kutateladze's resignation, saying it was the "right" decision, while maintaining that the raid on the television station had nothing to do with other government departments and was not a sign of state interference in independent media.

"There is no threat to freedom of speech in Georgia," Shevardnadze said. "It is inviolable."

He criticized staff at Rustavi 2 for defying a court order to open their financial records for examination, but admitted that Kutateladze's "methods ... were not very well thought of."

©MMI CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report

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