Three Georgian Special Forces personnel and eleven militants were killed in northeastern Georgia close to the Dagestan section of the Georgian-Russian border, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) reported on August 29. The fierce clash between Georgian troops and a well-armed paramilitary group of around twenty people seemingly confirmed Tbilisi’s concerns about possible spillover of instability from the North Caucasus to Georgia and Russian attempts to destabilize the situation in the country prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Five residents of the Georgian village Lapankuri, situated about twenty kilometers from the Georgian-Russian border, were captured by the militants while enjoying a picnic in a mountain forest in the vicinity of their homes, Georgian media reported on August 28. On the same day, Rustavi 2 TV informed that the residents were found through a search operation conducted by a rescue team composed of local and military police. Freed local residents said that men in military uniform released them after a Georgian border officer offered to be taken hostage in exchange for the five civilians.
After the armed group’s penetration into Georgian territory was confirmed, the Georgian authorities started sending troops to the area to release the detained border officer and stop the movement of militants on the country’s territory. For this purpose, the MIA launched talks with the armed group who agreed to free the officer. However, the exchange of fire started after the militants learned that Georgian authorities wanted them to surrender.
According to the MIA, Archil Chokheli and Solomon Tsiklauri of the MIA’s Special Forces and military doctor Vladimer Khvedelidze of the Ministry of Defense’s special operations forces were killed and five Georgian servicemen wounded during the shootout. Eleven militants were reportedly killed and the remainder of the group dispersed in the mountains. The following day, the MIA released video footage showing dead corpses of militants and their armaments including anti-tank rocket launchers, sniper rifles, machine guns and ammunition.
The secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, Giga Bokeria, said that the event could be related to the long-running Islamist insurgency on the Russian side of the Russian-Georgian border. A representative of Dagestani law enforcement bodies strengthened Tbilisi’s presumption by stating that “The armed group that Georgian security forces have been fighting for the last few days has moved into the territory of Georgia from Dagestan, and its members are from the so called Tsuntin group [of Islamist militants],” to RIA Novosti on August 29. However, the Russian Federal Security Service denied any paramilitary activities on the Dagestan section of the Russian-Georgian border.
According to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, “Those who have organized it had several tasks … to test our combat readiness after 2008 and to stage a provocation.” He added that such incidents “directly or indirectly usually serve as a pretext for our country’s invader.”
Meanwhile, the Leaders of Dagestan’s Vilayet Mujahids released a statement confirming that the Georgian forces conducted military operations against representatives of the Armed Forces of the Caucasian Emirate: “[Our] brother Mujahids did not intend any military operations on Georgian territory … they [the Georgian side] betrayed and killed 11 brave sons of the Caucasus. It is not first time they have deceived us to please Putin’s regime.” The statement threatened Tbilisi that it would make “a new enemy whose revenge will be … severe.”
Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the opposition coalition Georgian Dream, argued that the government should have avoided the clash resulting in the death of Georgian servicemen but did not clarify what should have been done to eschew the confrontation. Likewise, the head of the opposition party Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, stated that the incident demonstrates that “our borders are not well protected and an armed group of 20 persons can cross into the country without being detected by the border guards.”
Besik Aladashvili, a national security expert and a former security officer, told RFE/RL that given the tensions between Russia and Georgia, it was impossible for Tbilisi to allow the militants to leave the country. According to Aladashvili, it cannot be excluded that a paramilitary group was sent by the Kremlin with the special task of staging a provocation in Georgia. If Tbilisi would have allowed them to return to Dagestan, Moscow would designate it as a Georgian attempt to convey “boyeviks” to Russian territory which would strengthen the Kremlin’s long-standing claims that Georgia is sheltering terrorists.
Whereas there are various speculations about the operation, this unpleasant incident has certainly added to Tbilisi’s concerns over a spillover of the North Caucasian insurgency into Georgia especially in light of the imminent parliamentary elections. Therefore, a critical task for Tbilisi is to contain adverse external affects that may disturb the country’s electoral environment.