Georgia Frees Hostages Along Border With Russia

NYTimes | August 29, 2012

TBILISI, Georgia — The Georgian authorities said Wednesday that their forces had engaged in a fierce gun battle to free five Georgian villagers being held by a band of heavily armed militants who had crossed over the mountainous border from the Russian republic of Dagestan. Three Georgian officers and at least 10 militants were killed, officials said.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have remained tense since the two countries fought a brief war over disputed territory in 2008, and the militant incursion threatened to worsen the already troubled relationship.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said Wednesday night that Russia was responsible for “exporting its disorder.” Speaking at his residence in Kvareli, with the Caucasus mountain range behind him, Mr. Saakashvili said: “Disorder and instability behind these mountains will stay there. We will do everything for this.”

Russia has long battled Muslim separatists in Dagestan, as it has in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, and violence often flares in the region. On Tuesday, at least 14 people were killed in two separate attacks in Dagestan, including a highly respected Muslim cleric, Said Afandi Atsayev.

A deputy interior minister of Georgia, Nodar Kharshiladze, said a group of about 20 armed men took the five Georgians hostage near the village of Lapankuri, about 13 miles from the Georgia-Russia border.

“We can’t definitely say who these paramilitary people are and what their purpose is, but it is clear they were conducting some kind of terroristic activities there,” Mr. Kharshiladze said in an interview. “They are not locals.”

Mr. Saakashvili said that the authorities had been in negotiations with the militants — whom he described as “very well equipped and, as we saw it, well trained.” But he said that they repeatedly refused to surrender and that eventually shooting broke out. Military drones were also sent to the scene, he said.

Government forces began efforts to free the hostages in the early hours of Wednesday, and the gun battle ensued. Officials and witnesses said the militants were armed with automatic weapons as well as a grenade launcher.

By mid-Wednesday, officials said five hostages had been released and the militants were surrounded, and they released short videos of two young men who said they had been freed.

“We went for a picnic to the forest, I and my friends,” said one man, who was identified as Levan Khutsurauili. “When we were returning along the river we met several men, they were armed and had beards. They told us we are hostages now and must follow them. They threatened they would kill us if we tried to run away.”

Georgian officials said that one of the government officers killed was a doctor from the Defense Ministry, Vladimir Khvedelidze, while the two others, Solomon Tsiklauri and Archil Chokheli, were members of the special forces of the Interior Ministry.

Officials said an investigation would seek to determine the identities and origins of the militants.

In the town of Telavi, Georgian officials quickly established a high-level crisis management team, led by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili. Georgia is gearing up for parliamentary elections in early October and presidential elections early next year, and officials seem mindful that voters may well judge on them on the handling of such episodes.

In Russia, officials continued to deal with the aftermath of Tuesday’s bloodshed in Dagestan.

Ravil Gainutdin, the head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, warned that a recent spate of violence, much of it carried out by Muslims against other Muslims, could lead to civil war.

“The people of Dagestan now need a lot of strength, wisdom and God-fear to keep the situation in a legal realm, prevent a civil war and prevent conflicts from dividing Dagestan’s society,” he said in a statement published on the Internet.

Sheik Gainutdin also recalled the “simplicity, nobility and wisom” of the slain cleric, Sheik Atsayev, who was killed by a suicide bomber.

The Russian authorities identified the suicide bomber as Aminat Kurbanova, a 30-year-old woman who lived in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

Olesya Vartanyan reported from Tbilisi, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow.


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