Three Georgian special forces personnel and 11 gunmen who allegedly crossed from Russia were killed yesterday in the deadliest violence near the border since their 2008 war, officials said.
Georgia’s interior ministry said the men died in clashes after it launched an operation to neutralise an armed gang which had crossed the frontier from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region of Dagestan and taken hostages.
Deputy Interior Minister Nodar Kharshiladze stressed however that “we do not know who these people are”—a comment that avoided putting immediate blame for the incident on Tbilisi’s foes in the Kremlin.
“Three special forces personnel were killed and five wounded during the pursuit operation carried out by the interior ministry against the armed group which crossed into Georgia from Russia,” Kharshiladze said.
Two of the dead servicemen were interior ministry officers while the third was a doctor serving with defence ministry special forces.
“Eleven members of the armed group were killed,” Kharshiladze said.
A further six gunmen were surrounded, he said.
“At this point we do not know who these people are and why they entered Georgian territory,” he said, calling it the “worst incident” in terms of police casualties since the ex-Soviet state’s five-day territorial war with Russia.
The ministry said that an unspecified number of hostages had been freed unharmed during the “anti-terrorist” operation which started overnight.
It released footage on its website showing two of the hostages that it said had been freed. One of the reported hostages said they had been seized by a group of “armed, bearded men” on their way back to their village of Lapankuri after having a picnic in the Lopota Gorge near the border.
“They told us we were hostages and warned us they would shoot us dead if we tried to escape,” the unnamed man said in the ministry’s video.
“It was a group of about 15 heavily armed men, they had automatic rifles,” he said.
As the stand-off continued, Georgian television showed police vehicles shuttling armed officers in camouflage uniforms into the area and helicopters circling overhead.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia have remained high since the 2008 war and the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
Russia, which has been trying to crush a long-running Islamist insurgency in North Caucasus republics including Dagestan and Chechnya, has repeatedly accused Georgia of offering a safe haven to militant extremists.
The Western-backed government in Tbilisi has consistently rejected Moscow’s allegations.
Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia during the 2008 conflict to repel Tbilisi’s military attempt to regain control over the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia.
After defeating Georgia’s army, Russia was strongly criticised by the West for recognising South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states and stationing troops there permanently—a move that Tbilisi describes as occupation.