Police in the South Caucasus republic of Georgia on 7 December conducted a wide-scale operation that officials say was aimed at apprehending criminals and illegal immigrants from war-torn Chechnya. Reports say all those detained were ethnic Chechens, some of whom were refugees from Russia's breakaway republic and others Georgian citizens. RFE/RL spoke with representatives of Georgia's thousands-strong Chechen community, who expressed their fears following the security sweep.
Prague, 9 Prague 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An unprecedented security crackdown conducted over the weekend throughout Georgia may prompt the Chechen community in that South Caucasus state to seek shelter in a third country.
Georgian police on 7 December conducted a wide-scale operation that government officials say was aimed at apprehending criminals and illegal immigrants. The security sweep, which has been denounced by many Tbilisi-based human rights organizations, resulted in the detention of scores of ethnic Chechens, including many refugees who had fled to Georgia from neighboring Chechnya.
Talking today on national radio, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze justified the operation, saying it was aimed at screening the Chechen community in search of alleged "terrorists" seeking to destabilize the country.
The police crackdown followed a deadly clash between Security Ministry forces and a group of five gunmen in the eastern Lagodekhi district, near the border with Azerbaijan. The shoot-out, which occurred on 6 December, left all five gunmen dead and one Georgian soldier injured.
Authorities in Tbilisi maintain that the gunmen -- three ethnic Karachais from the North Caucasus and their Georgian guides -- were wanted in connection with a series of deadly blasts in Moscow and southern Russia in September 1999 that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. These bombings, which have never been independently investigated, served in part as a justification for the Kremlin to resume its military campaign in breakaway Chechnya just weeks later.
Georgian officials said the gunmen had recently left the Pankisi Gorge and were heading toward Azerbaijan when they were intercepted. The Pankisi Gorge is a mountainous area close to Chechnya that is home to some 6,000 ethnic Chechens known as Kists and at least 4,000 refugees from the separatist Russian republic.
On 25 August, Georgian authorities launched a security crackdown in Pankisi in a bid to cleanse the area of the criminals and armed Chechen militants Russia said were hiding in the area.
Despite Georgia's subsequent claims that all separatist fighters had been flushed out of the area, Russian President Vladimir Putin on 11 September threatened to order air strikes against alleged Pankisi-based Chechen training camps.
In a bid to appease Moscow, Tbilisi later agreed to extradite to Moscow five separatist militants who had illegally crossed the Chechen border into Georgia. Yet, Russia still insists that Georgia hand over another eight Chechen fighters who are in custody in Tbilisi.
The Georgian-Russian dispute has sparked concerns among Georgia's ethnic Chechens, who fear that Tbilisi may yield to constant pressure exerted by Moscow. Among those detained last week by Georgian police was Khizri Aldamov, the representative of Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov in Tbilisi.
Aldamov, himself a Georgian citizen, was dragged out of his bed at dawn on 7 December and taken with his entire family to the nearest police station. While being interrogated, he developed a minor heart complication and was rushed to hospital.
Talking to RFE/RL from the hospital, where he is still convalescing, Aldamov dismissed Georgian security officials' denials that the operation targeted ethnic Chechens. He also said he believes the operation was ordered as a result of Russia's unabated pressure on the Georgian government. "All this has been done under the pressure exerted by Russia. It cannot be otherwise. Georgia is a small state that is constantly under Russian pressure. Russia is always trying to frighten Georgia, to threaten it. Russian President [Putin] has openly said in various statements that Russia will bomb Georgian areas where Chechens live. Their sole justification is to say that all Chechens are terrorists, that they should be killed wherever they are. Georgian [government officials] are afraid of those threats that have been uttered by the Russian president. They do not know what to do. They are trying to save their people, to save their state, and the Chechens are constantly under threat," Aldamov said.
Aldamov said he does not deny Georgian authorities the right to chase criminals and illegal immigrants. But, in his view, the government has sufficient resources at its disposal "to avoid dragging children out of their beds at dawn and marching them out in the cold toward police stations."
Most detainees were released after being fingerprinted, photographed, and held for a few hours. However, a number of ethnic Chechens remained in jail early today, and community leaders say they are trying to check rumors that some of them may soon be deported to Russia.
Ballaudi Zakaev, an ethnic Chechen who has been living in Georgia for many years as a refugee, was also apprehended on 7 December. Ballaudi Zakaev, whose brother Akhmed -- Maskhadov's top emissary -- was arrested in October in Copenhagen at Moscow's request, told our correspondent that police officers refused to answer detainees when asked about the motives for the security crackdown. "We did not get a single explanation. We all asked [police officers] why they were doing this, but they did not give us the slightest explanation. They just rounded us up, took us to the police station under the threat of automatic rifles, photographed us, took our fingerprints, and locked us up. None of us got any explanation for what was happening," Ballaudi Zakaev said.
Ballaudi Zakaev said he is so afraid of being arrested again that he has stayed in his house for the past two days.
In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service from London, where he arrived on 5 December from Denmark, Akhmed Zakaev tried to downplay the importance of last week's security crackdown, saying one should not dramatize it by giving it a "political or ethnic character." He also said he hopes it will not negatively impact relations between Georgia and Chechnya.
Yet, in Aldamov's opinion, the police operation is likely to prompt many Chechens to leave Georgia and seek shelter in another country. "We are calling upon the international community to assist the Chechen people in leaving this country. This will help save both the Georgian and the Chechen peoples, because each time Russian planes bomb Georgia, [Moscow] gives the same justification, that is, that Chechens are hiding on Georgian territory. The Georgians themselves say nothing bad against the Chechens, but we can feel that they nevertheless believe they are being bombed because of the Chechens. We do not want the Georgian people, the Georgian state, to suffer. This is why the Chechens now agree to go to another country to save the Georgian people. The Chechens who live in Georgia will probably ask a third country to help them out of here and find a place elsewhere. This question will be on the agenda soon," Aldamov said.
In a move unlikely to reassure Georgia's Chechen community, the Russian leader today thanked Shevardnadze for his efforts to curb terrorism.
Addressing a meeting of cabinet ministers in Moscow, Putin also said the recent arrest in Pankisi of Yusuf Krymshakhalov -- another suspect in the 1999 bombings -- and his extradition to Moscow on 7 December would have a positive impact on Russian-Georgian relations.