TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian officials said on Thursday gunmen who took hostages on its territory were Russian nationals and suggested they acted in the interests of the “enemy”, while stopping short of blaming Moscow for the raid.
Georgian forces shot dead 11 gunmen and three of its soldiers were killed in an operation on August 29 to free hostages near the frontier with Russia’s Dagestan region.
“We understand quite well in whose interests it was, it can only be in the interests of our enemy,” President Mikheil Saakashvili was shown on Georgian television as telling residents of Lapankuri village, from where people were taken hostage.
Russian security officials denied there had been any illegal border crossings in the area.
Pro-Western Saakashvili, in power since 2004, is facing growing competition from a newly-created opposition group ahead of parliamentary elections in October.
Georgia fought a brief war with Russia in August 2008 after which Moscow recognized Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and increased its military presence in the regions.
Visiting Lapankuri, Saakashvili said “the enemy” was testing the combat-readiness of the Georgian army and assured Georgians they were well protected.
Parts of Georgia’s porous border with Russia lie in remote areas of the Caucasus mountains and there have been reports in the past of fighters from Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus infiltrating Georgian territory.
During its second war with Chechnya, launched in 1999, Moscow said Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge on the border with Chechnya was being used as a shelter for militants. Georgia says there are no longer any militants from Russia there.
Georgia’s Deputy Defence Minister Nodar Kharshiladze said the Lapankuri gunmen were Russian nationals from North Caucasus.
“As a result of the operation we have identified those combatants were Russian citizens,” he told reporters in Tbilisi.
“Their origin is Northern Caucasus,” he added.
“We hope that after apprehensions of some terrorists alive we will have more information. Investigation will be continued in this direction.”
Reporting by Nino Ivanishvili writing by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Andrew Roche