Prague, 31 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia has decided to temporarily restrict border trade with Azerbaijan in a bid to curb illegal trade with its southeastern neighbor.
New regulations were finalized yesterday by the National Security Council.
They include closure of the so-called Red Bridge checkpoint, in the southeastern Kvemo Kartli region, where four policemen were wounded yesterday while trading fire with suspected smugglers.
Addressing reporters at a press briefing late yesterday, Georgian security officials said illegal trade with Azerbaijan has presented long-standing problems for the national economy. They said closure of Red Bridge -- which is the main checkpoint between the two countries -- should help law-enforcement forces restore control over all border traffic.
The chairman of the Georgian Parliament's committee for defense and security affairs, Givi Targamadze, said that law-enforcement agencies may be able to resolve the trafficking crisis within a few weeks, hinting that similar operations may be conducted in the near future.
"I believe this problem could be solved within approximately one month," Targamadze said. "If there is a need to perform security operations [such as the one conducted on 30 May], we should be given the opportunity to do so. We must once and for all get free access to Red Bridge and nearby [ethnic] Azerbaijani territories."
Authorities in Tbilisi have noted a recent increase in illegal border traffic through Kvemo Kartli, where most of Georgia's ethnic Azerbaijanis live. They say smugglers operating along the border have created a criminal enclave that has become inaccessible to law-enforcement agencies.
"If smugglers want to fight us with bare fists, we will respond in kind. But if they want to use their weapons, we will respond with fire." -- Georgian Interior Minister Baramidze
Georgia's Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava yesterday blamed former Kvemo Kartli Governor Levan Mamaladze for making the region open to illegal border trade with Azerbaijan.
Mamaladze was dismissed from his post after President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned last November. Facing corruption charges, the former Kvemo Kartli governor fled to Russia, where he is still believed to be hiding.
Yesterday's operation took place in the villages of Ponichala and Karajala, which Georgian law-enforcement agencies claim have become major regional smuggling hubs.
Early yesterday, some 200 special police forces raided Ponichala, Karajala, and other nearby border villages, reportedly seizing weapons, ammunition, explosives, drugs, jewelry, and other contraband goods.
Georgian media report the dawn security sweep also resulted in the arrest of an unspecified number of people.
Authorities in Tbilisi said suspected smugglers opened fire on law-enforcement personnel, slightly wounding four of them.
Local residents in return complained about the strong-arm tactics, saying police officers searched houses without proper warrants.
The new Georgian government, which has vowed to put an end to corruption and other financial crimes, has recently taken steps to restore control over border traffic with Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Soon after President Mikheil Saakashvili's election last January, security officials closed contraband paths leading from Armenia to the border village of Sadakhlo, some 30 kilometers west of Red Bridge.
Located close to the point where the borders of all three South Caucasus countries meet, Sadakhlo has long been the site of a major wholesale market.
Because of the unsolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are no direct trade links between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But residents from both countries come to Sadakhlo to trade goods, including products manufactured in Turkey and Iran.
Armenian authorities have complained that Sadakhlo has become a major contraband center and that the giant open-air market there should be closed. But regional experts believe Sadakhlo's closure would be an unpopular move, since it is one of the main sources of goods for ordinary people in the region.
International experts believe a substantial amount of Afghan-produced narcotics meant for European markets transit through Sadakhlo and Red Bridge.
Other major smuggling routes are believed to pass through Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Georgian Interior Ministry today said it has sent police reinforcements into the South Ossetian area, which is formally under the control of Russian peacekeepers.
Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze explained the move today in comments to reporters. He said the Russian Army general in charge of South Ossetia's peacekeeping operations had ordered the dismantling of Georgian police checkpoints established there only last month.
Nabzdorov has denied any plans to remove Georgian checkpoints, saying such a decision can be made only after consultations with Tbilisi.
South Ossetia claims these checkpoints represent a threat to its security and testify to Georgia's eagerness to impose an economic blockade on the region, which it hopes to reclaim as part of its territory.
Meanwhile, Baramidze today warned that Georgia would not hesitate to use force to defend its interests.
"We are not planning to attack anyone. We're only fighting smugglers," Baramidze said. "If smugglers want to fight us with bare fists, we will respond in kind. But if they want to use their weapons, we will respond with fire. We are here to defend the interests of the Georgian government."
Also today, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said that the decision to set up police checkpoints in the villages of Tkviavi, Pkhvenisi, Nikozi, and Eredvi has helped cut off the main smuggling route from Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia's Northern Ossetia republic.
Zhvania also said any attempt at preventing his government from fighting illegal trade through South Ossetia would be "fruitless."