Interior Ministry Forced to Take Drastic Measures
As many have predicted, a first serious attempt at curbing crime in Pankisi triggered immediate retaliation. In response to arrest of the notorious drug-dealer four policemen were abducted. The Interior Ministry now has to go all the way through with anti-criminal campaign or admit the failure.
Criminals kidnapped four policemen from the two checkpoints in the gorge after arrest of the notorious and influential drug dealer Yuri Bakhatashvili on February 17. The kidnappers demand Bakhatashvili’s release.
On February 18, President Shevardnadze stated that in connection with the accident additional units of the Internal Army and the Special Forces were dispatched to the gorge. Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili is at the place as well.
“I have instructed the Interior Ministry to make an unconditional ultimatum to the criminals to release not only the policemen, but also two other abducted persons detained in the gorge at the moment. Otherwise the Ministry will do whatever it considers necessary” – said Shevardnadze in his traditional Monday radio broadcast.
The last accident pushes the government towards decisive measures. The operation launched on January 15 was often criticized as merely a political maneuver, aimed at creating the visibility of action in Pankisi. However, the last incident pushes the police to resque their abducted colleagues or to admit the painful failure, which might cost the Interior Minister his post.
The international attitude towards Pankisi also grows stringent. Pankisi is more and more often is called a ‘terrorist shelter’, rather then a ‘criminal enclave.’ Along with Russia, the United States also started to talk about presence of Islamist terrorists in the gorge or alleged links of Pankisi criminals with highest-profile terrorists.
“According to our information, tens of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are hiding in the gorge” – said US Charge d’Affairs in Georgia Philip Remler in his interview to the Georgian mass media.
The United States are ready to assist the Georgian side in creating special antiterrorist group at the Defense Ministry. Russia still suggests carrying out a joint military operation against criminals and terrorists in the gorge, although on February 18 briefing President Shevardnadze adamantly rejected such a possibility.
“Georgia possesses limited abilities. But acts against criminals according to its own plans and is quite able to do so” – says Shevardnadze.
Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security Giorgi Baramidze says that Georgia will agree on joint military operations if antiterrorist forces of the United States or other NATO member states will participate in them.
At the same time Baramidze is against Russian involvement in the actions and says that joint operations with Russia are unacceptable for Georgia.
The Official Tbilisi foresees repatriation of approximately 7,000 Chechen refugees as a way to lessen tensions in Pankisi gorge and makes serious political concessions. The Georgian side has admitted that some of the Chechen fighters may be among the refugees, thus stepping aside from almost 2-year-long policy of denying any of such charges.
In turn Russian side has declared its readiness to cooperate with Georgia in refugee repatriation. During the visit of the Russian delegation on February 15, the two countries concluded agreement regarding joint action plan for repatriation of the refugees.
According to the plan, census of the Chechen refugees in Pankisi will be held in March. Persons who wish to return to the homeland will be registered separately in April. But hardly anyone will express such a wish, since local armed clashes still continue in Chechnya.
As Shevardnadze said on February 18 briefing, a delegation form Chechnya will come to Georgia to meet with refugees and convince them to return. However, President did not clarify when the visit will take place and who will be in the delegation.
Issue of repatriation might further increase tensions between the refugees and the local population. Akhmeta residents demand immediate repatriation, when the refugees themselves are organizing protest actions against their return back to Chechnya.
With all these facts taken into account Georgia’s interior and security ministries, as well as the politicians seem to be heading for yet another rough ride in Pankisi. Coming weeks and months would show if the officials would manage to keep the fragile balance between police operation and large-scale escalation.
By Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia
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