The operation against militants in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge two weeks ago may not be quite what the government in Tbilisi claims. That's according to some on-the-ground reporting by Nicholas Clayton for GlobalPost:
Tbilisi has blamed a deadly shootout last week on "armed subversives" it said took hostages after crossing the Caucasus Mountains from Russia.
However, interviews in this remote valley near the site of the gun battle with families of some of the 11 men reported killed by special forces troops indicate most and possibly all of them may have been Georgian residents.
They say the authorities are intimidating residents into keeping quiet about what may have been a sting operation gone wrong. Some believe the accusations against Russia may be part of an attempt to boost poll numbers ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
From the accounts of the locals with whom Clayton spoke, it seems that Islamist radicalism, which bedeviled the Pankisi gorge in the early part of the 2000s, hasn't really disappeared.
In the village of Duisi, Vano Margoshvili said that he learned on Friday that his 22-year-old nephew Aslan was among those killed. He said government officials informed family members on Sunday that Aslan had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and that they could visit his grave only at night. They were forbidden to gather people for a funeral, and were not allowed to see or prepare the body for Muslim burial rites....
Many residents, who assume their phones are monitored, speak in coded language. News and rumors are spread face to face. However, residents say they’re more concerned about the growing influence of religious fundamentalists in the region. “If the police find out I’m talking about them, they’d throw me in jail for 10 years,” one resident said, before mentioning a Islamic sect . “The Wahhabis would just kill me.”
Locals say some of those pursued by government troops have escaped into the mountains, from where they’ve made contact with family members.
Many here believe the shootout broke out after the government agreed to allow them safe passage into Dagestan before attacking them without warning during negotiations, a theory some Caucasus experts have supported.
Residents say they fear the survivors will be killed to stop them from revealing what happened. They say special forces troops are patrolling the mountains and forests around the gorge to intercept the remaining members of the group should they attempt to return home.
So why would the government do this? Clayton notes that "[s]ome believe [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili has sought to portray it as an example of Russian interference in Georgian affairs ahead of the elections in October." Sure enough, at an election rally this weekend, Saakashvili's main rival, Bidzina Ivanishvili, said that the government used the operation for political purposes:
“We have all seen during a tragedy close to Lapankuri village [in Telavi municipality] of Lopota gorge that a human life means nothing for this government,” Ivanishvili said. “Georgian troops died there; Georgian citizens, Kists died there and North Caucasians died there too. This is not a Georgian dream; this can’t be a Georgian dream...”
“What we also know for sure is that the authorities were insolently lying from the very first day of the operation in Lopota gorge, when they were claiming that they were fighting against a squad of saboteurs, infiltrated from Russia,” he said, adding that the authorities were also “lying” when initially denying that there were Georgian citizens among gunmen killed in the operation.
And Saakashvili, at his own rally, implied that Russia -- whom he claims is bankrolling Ivanishvili's campaign -- was trying to stage a provocation before the elections, but that the government "foiled" it:
"[A] huge provocation ... was being prepared. This provocation had a military element – unrests on our borders. Several days ago our police, our Defense Ministry prevented a very dangerous military provocation in the Lopota Gorge and our opponents, who are weeping today for the fate of terrorists and have not even utter a word about our [three special forces personnel] who died [in the clash], knew very well what this provocation was about; what this mess was all about.”
“This spring Russia threw into [Georgia] 2 billion dollars for Georgia’s elections, to finance its [Russia’s] candidate,” Saakashvili continued without specifying a “candidate”, but later in his speech he made direct references to leader of Georgian Dream opposition coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Whose account (if either) is right? If Clayton's sources are reliable, it sounds like there really could have been a political motive to the operation. Let's hope more journalists follow Clayton's lead and keep digging to figure out what really happened.