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Georgia: Former South Ossetian Interior Minister Escapes To Georgia

(RFE/RL) South Ossetia's former interior minister and Security Council secretary, Jemal Karkusov, escaped over the weekend from his prison cell in Tskhinvali where he was serving a four-year prison sentence. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili has suggested that Georgia planned and carried out Karkusov's escape. Merabishvili's veiled claim of responsibility and his refusal to hand Karkusov over to South Ossetian authorities have triggered speculation that Georgia may try to use Karkusov against the separatist leadership.

Prague, 21 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Jemal Karkusov and his brother Yan escaped from prison on the night of 19 November.

Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi the following day, Georgian Interior Minister Merabishvili hinted that he was directly responsible for the operation.

Merabishvili described the escape of the Karkusov brothers as a "great victory" and as a "very complicated operation that was planned six months in advance."

Merabishvili added that Georgia will not hand the two men over to South Ossetia. "These people were political prisoners," Merabishvili said. "They were arrested for political reasons. Now they are free in their homeland."

South Ossetian authorities, however, deny that Georgia was involved in the liberation of the Karkusov brothers.

Justice Minister Merab Chigoev has blamed the escape on negligence on the part of prison employees.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Tskhinvali, South Ossetian Press and Information Committee head Irina Gagloeva admitted that accomplices within South Ossetia's law-enforcement agencies helped the two men run away.

"A criminal case has been opened and it appears that unscrupulous law-enforcement officers are directly involved in this escape," Gagloeva said. "We're not hiding this. Some people have been arrested and have already confessed. This is a fact, unfortunately."

Gagloeva said that this is not the first time inmates have escaped from custody to seek refuge in neighboring Georgia, or elsewhere.

But she dismissed as a "myth" Merabishvili's claims that Georgia planned the operation.

"[The Georgians] are trying to make people believe that their law-enforcement agencies organized the whole thing," Gagloeva said. "By doing this, they're trying to make the world believe that they control everything [in South Ossetia], up to the point that they can free inmates. That's simply impossible. The Georgian secret services couldn't possibly take part in this escape."

A statement released by the separatist government today quoted South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzaev as saying that he notified the Georgian side of the escape within 10 minutes after it took place.

Mindzaev reportedly said Georgian authorities first agreed to help recapture the two fugitives, but subsequently changed their minds. He went on to accuse his Georgian counterpart of "seeking to derive political dividends from the incident."

Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" reported today that the Karkusov brothers are in Tbilisi under the protection of Georgia's Interior Ministry.

The newspaper quoted one of their unidentified relatives as saying that the Karkusov family is willing to help the Georgian government peacefully restore control over the separatist republic.

South Ossetia forcibly won de facto independence in the early 1990s.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has vowed to restore his country's territorial integrity during his mandate, recently unveiled new peace proposals aimed at bringing South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's influence.

The plan envisions granting the breakaway republic broad autonomy within Georgia. It also calls for greater involvement of the international community in helping Georgia and South Ossetia settle their sovereignty dispute.

South Ossetia has rejected the plan, seeing it as an effort to sideline Russia, its main sponsor.

"[The Georgians] are trying to make people believe that their law-enforcement agencies organized the whole thing. By doing this, they're trying to make the world believe that they control everything." -- South Ossetian press spokesperson

The Karkusov family member quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" today described Saakashvili's recent proposals as "interesting" and "respectful of South Ossetia's national interests."

The Russian newspaper speculated that Georgia, which insists that Karkusov was imprisoned for political reasons, might try to exploit him to lead an opposition movement against South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity.

But South Ossetian chief government spokesperson Gagloeva said that even if this is the case, such an attempt is unlikely to succeed.

"I believe [the Georgians] may try something like that. But such an attempt is bound to fail. It cannot work. The Karkusov family is effectively persona non grata in South Ossetia. This simply cannot work," Gagloeva said. "Jemal Karkusov cannot return to South Ossetia because of what he did. No one will ever receive him here. That he escaped to Georgia makes his return impossible. There have been precedents already and such people have become outcasts. They cannot return because they are considered to be traitors. Unfortunately, Jemal Karkusove chose this path. What kind of opposition could a man who is held in contempt by the population possibly set up? None."

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that Karkusov was officially serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of illegally possessing weapons.

The daily, however, quoted unspecified Georgian sources as saying the former interior minister -- who was stripped of all his government duties after Georgia's failure to forcibly retake control of South Ossetia last year -- was jailed amid growing political disagreements with the South Ossetian president.

The newspaper portrayed Karkusov as a proponent of political dialogue with Georgia.

Gagloeva, in turn, said Karkusov was sentenced and jailed for a number of criminal reasons, including alleged links with drug smugglers in Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia.

Among other grievances against Karkusov, Gagloeva mentioned his unsatisfactory performance during his tenure as interior minister, a period during which she says South Ossetia witnessed an unprecedented "upsurge of criminality."

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