Prague, 26 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, speaking in Gori on 25 July, announced the arrest last week of two suspects in a 1 February blast that claimed the lives of three police officers.
"I would like to express my thanks to the counter-intelligence department, which has demonstrated an exceptional professionalism in the past six months, identifying and [eventually] arresting the people who carried out this terrorist attack," Merabishvili said. "The two individuals who parked that notorious car here and then blew it up have been arrested and will be brought to justice under Georgian laws."
Merabishvili said six additional suspects are being sought in connection with the case. A third man was arrested on 25 July.
Georgian officials had long suspected South Ossetian separatists were responsible for the blast.
But Georgian analysts have said they believe the blast could be linked to infighting among rival Gori-based criminal groups controlling smuggling operations to and from South Ossetia. Several regional police officials -- including Shida Kartli police chief Aleko Sukhitashvili, the alleged target of the bombing -- were dismissed on suspicion of corruption in March.
Merabishvili on 25 July said confessions obtained from the two detainees had helped investigators determine the Gori attack had been planned by a man he identified as Colonel Anatolii Sysoev of the Russian Army's Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.
The interior minister was joined by Givi Targamadze, who heads the Georgian Parliament's Defense and Security Committee.
Targamadze accused Russia of using South Ossetia as a base for carrying out a number of sabotage operations against Georgian interests -- including attacks last year on the country's electricity grid that caused severe power outages.
"It is very unfortunate that our suspicions regarding Russia's possible direct involvement in our internal conflict [with South Ossetia] have proved founded," Targamadze said. "[The Russians] are directly training groups of saboteurs. We said in the past that we had information in regard to this. These groups are quite large, numbering -- according to our information -- about 120 people. In addition, there are quite a lot of [Russian] agents on Georgian territory."
The Interior Ministry later released a police video purporting to show one of the detainees admitting to playing a role in the Gori attack.
Investigators have identified the man as Gia Valishvili, an ethnic Georgian who said he recently changed his name to Valiev. In the video, Valiev described how he and his accomplices organized the attack, planting 70 kilograms of TNT in a car left outside the Gori police headquarters.
"It is very unfortunate that our suspicions regarding Russia's possible direct involvement in our internal conflict [with South Ossetia] have proved founded." Georgian parliamentarian Givi Targamadze
Valiev claimed the mastermind of the attack was a Russian, a man whom he identifies simply as Igor. In the video, Valiev said Igor suggested the explosives be connected to a detonator hidden in a cigarette pack in the car's glove box.
"The explosives had a special detonator that Igor had prepared," Valiev said. "The mechanism was hidden in a pack of Yava cigarettes. Two wires were protruding from the pack and were connected to an explosive capsule. On the side of the pack was a switch. After the mechanism was activated, it would go off within 15 minutes if neither the car nor the pack were moved. If the car or the pack was moved, it would go off within two hours."
Valiev never mentions Anatolii Sysoev by name. But Georgian investigators say the GRU operative is the same man Valiev identifies as Igor.
In a fresh police video released on 26 July, Valiev told investigators that Igor and other GRU operatives had established a headquarters with Russian peacekeepers in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
“In the second half of 2004, around 15 August, the GRU took us to the Daryal Gorge in [neighboring] North Ossetia," Valiev said. "We were trained at the 58th [Russian] army base. Our instructors were Russian. They taught us how to fire various weapons, assault rifles in particular, how to lay mines and use various pieces of heavy equipment. There were some 90 of us from [South] Ossetia at the base.”
Georgian officials have been careful not to implicate the Russian government in the attack. But the allegations have still sparked anger in Moscow.
Yevgenii Ivanov, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi, rejected suggestions his country could be behind the Gori attack.
"We categorically deny any possible involvement of Russian officials, or [government] institutions, in any illegal action committed on Georgian territory," Ivanov said.
In comments made to Russia's state-controlled Channel One television, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov also rejected Merabishvili's accusations.
Sedov said Moscow is "accustomed to seeing the Georgians make mountains out of molehills." In this case, he added, there wasn't even a molehill to begin with.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tbilisi's claims "would neither help normalize the situation in South Ossetia, nor contribute to the further development of Russian-Georgian ties."
Relations between Georgia and Russia have long been tense, despite the mild rapprochement that followed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's election in 2004.
Tbilisi accuses Russia of supporting separatist regimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while Moscow blames Georgia for allegedly allowing Chechen militants onto its territory.
Addressing an emergency security meeting in Tbilisi, Saakashvili on 25 July praised investigators for arresting suspects in connection with the Gori bombing. But he said claims that Russian individuals are involved in the attack should not harm ties with Moscow.
"I would like to stress that although there are clear indications that foreign citizens were involved in these operations -- and we have ample documented evidence of that -- I want everyone to know that we all have that information, but that we don't want to use it for confrontation," Saakashvili said. "We don't want cooperation with Russia [in the anti-terrorism fight] to turn into confrontation. We want full cooperation with the Russian Federation, with its appropriate services and their heads, as well as with [its] government on issues related to the fight against terrorism."
Meanwhile, Russian media on 26 July said Georgia's accusations are likely to prompt increased tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi.
In a commentary, Russia's state-controlled Radio Mayak said the claims are "absurd" and that there are no possible motives for Moscow to be involved.
Other Russian media note that Targamadze and other Georgian officials have also suggested Moscow might be behind a recent failed grenade attack on U.S. President George W. Bush during a visit to Tbilisi in May.
An ethnic Armenian resident of Tbilisi, identified as 27-year-old Vladimir Arutyunian, was arrested last week on suspicion of throwing a Russian-made device at Bush and Saakashvili while the two presidents were addressing a large crowd on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. The grenade reportedly failed to go off due to a malfunction.
Although Arutyunian has suggested in a police video that he acted alone, Georgian investigators on 25 July said they were looking for possible accomplices.See also:
Deadly Gori Blast Sparks Confused Reactions Among Officials
Grenade Suspect Charged With Policeman's Murder In Georgia