The first Georgian reports early on August 29 said troops and Interior Ministry special forces had trapped a group of armed “saboteurs” in the Lopota Gorge close to the Russian-Georgian border and secured the release of five local men whom the intruders had taken hostage. The Georgian Interior Ministry initially announced that “one intruder from Daghestan” had been killed. Just hours later, the ministry reported the release of two further groups of hostages and the death of at least 10 of the infiltrators, who were described as “terrorists.”
The men killed were said to be “mostly” Russian citizens from the North Caucasus republics. No clue was offered as to the ethnicity or citizenship of the others.
According to a more detailed account on August 30, the intruders captured on August 28 an unspecified number of border guards mobilized to search for the five missing local residents. They agreed to keep just one senior border guard as a hostage, releasing the others and the five local men. An Interior Ministry official came to convey to the intruders a demand from the Georgian authorities to surrender, which was rejected. Two militants then accompanied the Interior Ministry official to a location where he could liaise with his superiors; he led them into an ambush and both were shot dead. The other intruders were killed in a separate gunfight, in which the Georgian special forces personnel also died.
Caucasus Strategic Research Institute director Mamuka Areshidze pointed out that it is “odd” that 11 intruders were shot dead but not a single one was injured or taken alive for interrogation. The special forces units tasked with neutralizing the group should have been capable of shooting to incapacitate, rather than to kill.
Comparing Georgian and Russian official statements and media reports, Georgian political observers have listed three possible explanations of what actually happened.
The first is that the intruders were dispatched by Russia into Georgian territory with some unspecified hostile intent. There is no hard evidence to support or disprove that hypothesis, and little hope of obtaining any unless one or more of the surviving intruders is tracked down, captured, and interrogated.
Moreover, if the Georgian authorities suspected that the FSB was behind the incursion, why did they not make every effort to take at least one of the intruders alive in the hope of embarrassing Moscow by extracting from him a confession that could be broadcast on TV?
The second is that the men were members of the Islamic insurgency who crossed into Georgian territory. This is what vdagestan.com, the website of the Daghestan wing of the insurgency, says happened. The website denied that the group planned any “operations” on Georgian territory, but did not explain what their purpose there was. It also dismissed as “lies and slander” Georgian claims that the intruders took hostages.
The third hypothesis is that the Georgian authorities staged the entire operation for PR purposes to incriminate Russia. There is a precedent for this kind of scare-mongering. In March 2010, a Georgian TV channel broadcast a 30-minute report of an alleged new Russian attack on Georgia coinciding with a Russian-backed coup, only to announce once it finished that the events had not, in fact, taken place.
The obvious argument against that hypothesis is the casualties sustained by the Georgian side. The only circumstantial evidence to support it, according to Center for Human Rights head Ucha Naneishvili, is that local residents said the intruders spoke Georgian to the hostages.
Official Georgian statements are vague and inconsistent.
Speaking on national television late on August 29, when efforts to round up the remaining interlopers were still continuing, Saakashvili did not say outright that the men entered Georgia from Russia, merely that a “well-armed and well-trained armed group appeared on the Chechen and Daghestan section of the Georgian-Russian border” and took Georgian citizens hostage. He said the men were “destroyed” in a shootout after they ignored repeated demands to surrender.
Saakashvili compared the incident to what he termed the “export to Georgia by Russia in the 1990s” of the ongoing turmoil in the North Caucasus. Saakashvili mentioned in that context renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, but at the time of Basayev’s involvement in the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, neither Chechnya nor the North Caucasus as a whole was experiencing “turmoil.”
By the same token, Chechen field commander Khamzat Gelayev and his fighters did not retreat south and establish a rear base in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge until after the battle at Komsomolskoye in March 2000. And Gelayev was certainly not acting on orders from Moscow.
Saakashvili stressed that today, unlike in the 1990s, Georgia has emerged as a strong enough state not to permit “turmoil, instability, and violence on the territory of our neighboring country to spill over into Georgia in any form.”
The following day, by which time the “main phase” of the operation against the intruders was said to be over, Saakashvili imputed to them two objectives that imply they were acting at the behest of the Russian authorities. Saakashvili said they sought, first, to test the combat readiness of the Georgian armed forces, and second, to “stage a provocation” that could “directly or indirectly…serve as a pretext for our country’s invader.” He did not explain why, in that case, the intruders should have taken hostages rather than simply kill any Georgians they encountered to prevent them from sounding the alarm.
Late on August 29, however, National Security Council Secretary Bokeria said that while it is impossible to confirm or rule out any connection with Daghestan until the identity of the “militants” is established, it is plausible that they had links with insurgent groups in Daghestan, and “obvious” that their presence in Georgia was connected with “developments there,” by which he presumably meant the reported buildup of Russian troops and armor in recent weeks in three western districts of Daghestan bordering on Georgia.
It is, of course, possible that the Georgian authorities initially assumed that the incursion was masterminded by Moscow, and realized only after verbal contact was established with the intruders that it was not. Alternatively, they may have inferred at an early stage that the men were insurgents from Daghestan but killed them all the same, in order to perpetuate the uncertainty over their true identity and why they crossed the border and thus, by extension, the suspicion that Russia may have been behind the incident.