Spanish Hostages 'Held in Pankisi'

The Council of Europe is poised to lend its weight to the Pankisi Gorge debacle

Spanish Hostages 'Held in Pankisi'

The Council of Europe is poised to lend its weight to the Pankisi Gorge debacle

Mystery surrounds the fate of two Spanish businessmen who were abducted near Tbilisi three months ago and reportedly taken to the notorious Pankisi Gorge.

Jose-Antonio Tremino, 40, and Francisco Rodriguez, 48, were kidnapped at the end of November when masked gunmen waylaid their car on the road to Tbilisi airport.

The kidnapping -- which came just months after three Red Cross workers were seized in the Pankisi Gorge -- has brought the region firmly into the international spotlight and a Council of Europe committee will meet this month to discuss the growing tensions there.

The November incident also fuelled Russian accusations that the Georgian authorities are unable to control the rampant crime situation in Pankisi where 7,000 Chechen refugees have found refuge with their ethnic kin, the Kists. The Russians also claim that Chechen fighters are using Pankisi as a safe haven and an arms dump.

Certainly, the disappearance of Tremino and Rodriguez caused the Georgian authorities a good deal of embarrassment at a time when Russia was poised to slap a visa regime on the former Soviet republic.

Officials in Tbilisi say the Spaniards are being held in Pankisi but, in a recent interview with the Russian press, Georgian interior minister Kakha Targamadze admitted their exact whereabouts were still unknown.

He went on to say that relatives of the businessmen had been attempting to strike a deal with the kidnappers and this was seriously impeding the police investigation.

Goderdzi Khizanishvili, head of the investigative team, confirmed that the brothers of the two hostages arrived in Georgia for the second time on January 30 but had refused to inform the police of their activities. The brothers in turn deny any dealings with the abductors.

Information is sketchy. Zaur Gonashvili, who was released from captivity in the Pankisi Gorge on January 12, said he had heard definite confirmation that the missing businessmen were in the region but their captors were not Chechens but members of a Kist gang.

Temur Arabuli, head of the Akhmetsky police department, told IWPR that Chechen refugees had provided accurate information on the Spaniards' whereabouts and the local community as a whole resented the criminal activities of the kidnapping gangs.

In December, Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov announced that any Chechen found guilty of murder, kidnapping, robbery or rape on Georgian territory would face the death penalty.

And Maskhadov's press secretary, Maiarbek Vachagaev, told a Paris conference in January, that the rebel government welcomed any tough measures against Chechen gangs operating in Georgia because "the people of Ichkeria will never forget Georgia's hospitality towards the Chechen women and children who have been forced to flee the fighting".

This was a sentiment echoed by Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze who claimed history would remember that Georgia "remained true to the Caucasian code of honour and did everything to save the helpless people of Chechnya".

But it is this very "code of honour" which has caused so much friction between Tbilisi and Moscow ending in the imposition of a visa regime on December 5.

Russia continues to keep up the pressure. The former prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, now chairman of the Fatherland-All Russia party in the State Duma, has called for joint military operations in Pankisi, claiming that the Georgian armed forces are "in no condition to stabilise the situation without Russia's help".

And Boris Nemtsov, chairman of the Union of Rightwing Forces, told a meeting of Georgian deputies that the Chechens would occupy a large slice of northern Georgia unless swift action were taken.

The Russian stance enjoys some support in Georgia. Tengiz Kitovani, the former Georgian defence minister, claims that Chechen fighters are actively using the Pankisi Gorge as a springboard for their spring offensive against the federal army.

Ramaz Klimiashvili, a Georgian political scientist, commented, "The Georgian authorities have yet to consider the worst-case scenario whereby the local ethnic Kists and the Chechen refugees attempt to secure autonomy for the region."

However, President Shevardnadze, who visited the Akhmetsky Region on February 4 to launch a new hydroelectric project in Khadora, dismissed these claims as "fiction".

And Kakha Imnadze, press secretary to the Georgian leader, said that local elders "unanimously supported any move by the Tbilisi authorities to restore law and order to the gorge".

Imnadze also hit out at rumours spread by the Russian media that Arab mercenaries were gathering in a winter camp near Tbatana in preparation for the coming offensive.

He said these claims were "openly aimed at provoking [the Georgian government] and at undermining Georgia's authority."

This month a report on the Pankisi Gorge will be presented to the Council of Europe in Paris. Revaz Adamia, the chairman of Georgia's Union of Citizens party, said the report would focus on Russia's accusations that the authorities in Tbilisi have actively supported the Chechen war effort.

On December 8, the Georgian National Security Council launched a series of operations aimed at tackling the crime situation in the region. Major General Georgy Shervashidze, commander of the interior ministry troops said that there had been no incidents of car theft or kidnapping in Pankisi since this time.

However, the nearest interior ministry checkpoint is located eight kilometres from the gorge and local people tell a different story.

They say drugs including heroin are sold for a fraction of the price they command in Tbilisi. Iraky Nikolashvili, 25, who went to Pankisi to recover a stolen car, explains, "Like in the Tskhinvali region [South Ossetia], you can get drugs in Pankisi in exchange for cars stolen from other parts of Georgia."

A Tbilisi journalist commented, "Everyone in and around Pankisi knows who deals in drugs or who is involved in hostage-taking. But the police protect them because they use these people to gather what they call operational information."

Zurab Tchiaberashvili is a regular IWPR contributor

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