PANKISI GORGE, Georgia — 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.
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Although he didn’t blame the Kremlin directly, President Mikheil Saakashvili said those killed were acting in the interests of “our enemy.” Relations with Moscow have been cut since Russia invaded its southern neighbor during a brief war in 2008.
However, news of the confrontation prompted confusion in the small South Caucasus country over who the alleged militants were and what led to the conflict.
The interior ministry said they died during an operation to free five hostages on Aug. 29 that also killed three Georgian soldiers.
It came after the government announced the previous day it had cornered a “squad of saboteurs” in the northeast Lapota Gorge, which borders the turbulent Russian republic of Dagestan. Reports said the standoff continued after the suspected militants released the hostages the same day.
After the battle, the government said it was pursuing wounded members of the group, which it initially numbered at up to 20.
The interior ministry later released a video showing several bodies, most wearing camouflage, with their faces blurred. It also showed a large collection of what it said were captured weapons that included rocket grenade launchers and automatic and sniper rifles.
Saakashvili said in a televised news conference on Aug. 29 that he would not allow “turmoil, instability and violence on the territory of our neighboring country to spill over into Georgia” from Russia’s North Caucasus, where Islamist separatists regularly stage shootings and bombings.
The interior ministry said the militants’ identities would be confirmed during an investigation. On Monday, however, it acknowledged that two of the fighters killed in the operation, Aslan Margoshvili and Bahaudin Kavtarashvili, were Georgian citizens native to the Pankisi Gorge, about 30 miles from the site of the shootout. The valley is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Chechens, many of them refugees from Russia’s two wars in Chechnya.
Pankisi residents told GlobalPost that all seven bodies so far identified belong to villagers from the region. Some have already been secretly buried.
They said although they doubted any of the men involved in the shootout were involved in terrorist activities, they said some former insurgents sometimes crossed the mountains to visit relatives in Russia and fight Russian forces.
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.
Residents said three bodies are buried at the site, where four graves remain unfilled. They also described an increased presence of special forces in the region and said local security officials had warned them not to speak about the deaths.
The Pankisi Gorge was a source of tension between Russia and Georgia in the early 2000s, when Moscow accused Tbilisi of providing a safe haven there for
Chechen insurgents and Al Qaeda members. Russia bombed several sites in the lawless region until Georgian forces trained by US counter-terrorism instructors asserted control in 2002-2003.
The gorge, which has a population of about 15,000 mainly subsistence farmers and refugee families, forms a small plain dotted with villages and unworked land. Unemployment is crushingly high, and many young residents who lived through the brutal Chechen wars never received a full education.
Locals say the authorities are imposing a quasi-police regime even though most foreign jihadists left the gorge long ago. Only Aslan Margoshvili’s aunt and uncle would consent to publishing their names. Others said they feared reprisals.
Several dozen people quietly gathered behind closed gates in the courtyard of the Margoshvili family house to express condolences despite the ban on funerals.
Vano Margoshvili stood under an awning of grape vines. A former director of the school where Aslan studied, he said the boy was one of the brightest in his class. He went on to study construction at the Georgian Technical University in Tbilisi.
He took a year off to study in Finland during his fourth year at the university, his aunt Natela said. From there, he informed his family during one of his regular telephone calls home that he switched to a program in Slovakia. However, the government recently said Aslan had returned to Georgia in March via Dubai.
“They say he was in Georgia the whole time, but it doesn’t make any sense that we didn’t know he was here for six months,” Natela Margoshvili said, adding that Aslan never missed making his routine calls during the past year.
"Now the government is calling him a terrorist and trying to scare us into being quiet about it,” Vano said.
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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.
The interior ministry did not respond to questions about the shootout before this article’s publication.
Some believe Saakashvili has sought to portray it as an example of Russian interference in Georgian affairs ahead of the elections in October. His ruling United National Movement Party previously accused the opposition Georgian Dream coalition of politicians of representing Russian interests.
The president said in a news conference that the militants entered Georgia with “several tasks.”
“One was to test our combat readiness,” he said in comments reported by the website Civil.ge. “The second was to stage a provocation, and I think that they failed in that too.”
Pankisi residents remain highly skeptical. Natela Margoshvili says although she doesn’t know whom to blame for her nephew’s death, “sooner or later, we will.”