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Georgia: Doubts Over New Crime Crackdown

Residents of crime-hit alpine area feel latest bid to rid it of gangsters is not being handled properly.
By Gocha Mindzhoraya

Georgian police sniper takes up position
Old fortified towers still stand guard over Mestia, the administrative centre of Svaneti

A major interior ministry crackdown on operation in the alpine region of Svaneti has provoked a sceptical response from the local community.

Interior affairs minister Koba Narchemashvili, who arrived in the central town on Mestia on September 9, one day after a large number of government forces landed in the area, said, "The special operation will follow only one pattern - fighting crime. I think we'll be able to complete it within two weeks."

Svaneti has shared the reputation of Georgia's "kidnap capital", along with the notorious Pankisi Gorge.

Foreigners have long been advised against traveling to this remote alpine area - on the border with Abkhazia and the Northern Caucasus - where mountains are covered in snow for eight months of the year.

The already serious crime situation in the region took a turn for the worse last month when two families suspected of involvement in organised crime started a violent feud.

A car belonging to one family was blown up on August 5, and the family home of the other clan was destroyed in an explosion some three weeks later. While nobody lost their lives in either attack, several people suffered serious injuries.

Historically, blood feuds in Svaneti can go on for decades - and practically every family has an arsenal of firearms that any militant organisation might envy.

Unnerved by the prospect of such powerful clans indulging in tit-for-tat violence in the district, local residents sent a petition to the government requesting urgent action from law enforcers, but this appears to have been ignored.

In a bid to draw attention to their concerns, residents organised a protest rally in Mestia on September 2, accusing the police of inaction and demanding a visit from the interior minister.

Criminal activity in Svaneti is not a new subject for the government to tackle. The region came under scrutiny last year during an operation to flush out suspected militants from the Pankisi Gorge area following pressure from the international community.

Last month, President Eduard Shevardnadze turned his attention to Svaneti, demanding that law and order be brought to the region. "The area has become a haven for all sorts of criminals," he said.

But although local residents insisted on urgent measures, the overall attitude to the current operation is one of scepticism.

"Everything has been done wrong from the very beginning. Not only did they arrive late, but they advertised their operation on television. There isn't a single important criminal left here now," complained local resident Levan Guledani.

Mestia district police chief Besik Gabuldani partially agrees with Guledani, "Hopefully, the task force will stay as long as they can, and a serious investigation unit will be set up to give timely response to crimes. One-off cleanups are useless here."

Some locals have been put off by the heavy-handedness of the operation. "They shouldn't be using words like 'liquidation' and 'cleanup'," protested local teacher Nargiz Niguriani.

"These are our relatives, our blood, and we should look for other solutions. Besides, such actions should be conducted by people with clean consciences, not corrupt Tbilisi officials."

The last anti-crime operation took place seven years ago, when special units turned up to arrest Yevgeny Aprasidze, the former head of a Georgian military battalion, who had allegedly committed several murders.

Aprasidze, an experienced military officer, signaled that he was not about to go quietly, rallying together relatives and friends and a formidable arsenal of grenade launchers, snipers rifles, night vision equipment and heavy machine guns.

Possibly hearing of Aprasidze's resistance plans, the special forces switched their attentions to two other wanted men, the Ushkhuani brothers, in the village of Becho.

Armored vehicles and explosive shells were used in the operation. In the ensuing firefight, both brothers were killed, as were three policemen.

Commenting on the current special operation in Svaneti, senior Georgian defence official Jemal Gakhokidze stressed that this time the security forces have planned to capture all criminals at large in Svaneti. "We are talking about particularly dangerous offenders, including murderers and kidnappers," he said.

Similar targets were announced last spring at the start of the anti-criminal operation in Pankisi Gorge. The active phase of the operation took almost a year, and its completion is yet to be officially announced.

Gocha Mindzhoraya is a journalist with the Panorama newspaper in Zugdidi.

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