After an intense search, on July 20 Georgian police arrested an individual suspected of tossing a hand-grenade towards U.S. President George W. Bush during his speech at Tbilisi’s Freedom Square on May 10.
Vladimir Arutyunian, 27, is an ethnic Armenian resident of Tbilisi. The police tracked Arutyunian down using an anonymous telephone tip received after local authorities published a photo of the suspect on July 18. Arutyunian vigorously resisted when three officers from the Ministry of Interior attempted to enter his apartment in Vashli-Jvari, a suburb of Tbilisi, to arrest him and was wounded in the process.
Arutyunian shot to death Zurab Kvlividze, 37, head of the Anti-Terrorist Department of the Interior Ministry, who had managed to wound Arutyunian when he was trying to escape. Eyewitnesses said that Kvlividze made a fatal error when he allowed the wounded Arutyunian time to rise to his feet and shoot.
While the police called for an ambulance for their wounded colleague, Arutyunian fled to a nearby park. Additional police converged on the park and managed to take the suspect into custody after a two-hour chase.
At a special press conference late on July 20, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili emphasized that the ministry’s investigative group, in cooperation with U.S. specialists, have conducted an enormous investigation over the last few months and managed to identify Arutyunian. The police inquiry accelerated after a photo of the suspect was published along with the announcement of a reward of 150,000 Laris (about $82,000) for information leading to the arrest of the suspect. In two days the ministry’s hotline received more than 150 anonymous calls.
Merabishvili said it would take time to prove Arutyunian’s involvement in the attempt on the U.S. President’s life. Arutyunian’s mother, Angela, was also detained and interrogated by police. She told journalists that she had not seen her son for three days before July 20. “I cannot believe that my son committed this crime,” she declared. Mrs. Arutyunian told journalists that they had shown her four photographs and asked her whether the man in the photos was her son. “I told them that the man on the photographs did not look like my son,” she said.
Arutyunian’s neighbors say that the family lives in extreme poverty. They say that the suspect grew up without a father and that he is a loner. They characterize him as a close-mouthed person leading a secluded life. A medical examination has yet to determine Arutyunian’s state of mind.
At a July 21 news conference, Merabishvili revealed that the suspect was arrested after police received valuable information from several citizens, who had called the hotline after the Interior Ministry issued photos of the suspect. Merabishvili said that the reward would go to several persons whose information had helped law enforcement capture the suspect. The identities of those persons will remain confidential. According to Merabishvili, an investigation is underway to determine if Arutyunian had any co-conspirators.
Additionally, video footage issued by the Ministry on July 21 and broadcast by Georgian television showed Arutyunian’s apartment where police found several hand-grenades, military uniforms, a night-vision device, several gasmasks, and military guidelines. The origin of this military ammunition has yet to be clarified.
Later on July 21, the Ministry released a short interview with the suspect. The footage showed Arutyunian admitting that he had tossed a hand grenade into the crowd during President Bush’s speech. Arutyunian not only confessed to his crime, but he also said that he would make another attempt if the opportunity presents itself, according to Deputy Healthcare Minister Irakli Giorgobiani. Giorgobiani, however, underlined that the suspect was suffering from shock, “so his confession cannot be trusted one hundred percent.”
Hospital personnel also said that Arutyunian demonstrated some command of the English language when he cursed the FBI investigators who came to see him in the hospital. (FBI experts were also seen in the suspect’s apartment shortly after the arrest.) According to medical personnel, the suspect has three wounds that do not represent any immediate danger to his life. Although the Interior Ministry initially announced that Arutyunian’s whereabouts would not be disclosed for security reasons, this information quickly became public. Currently the suspect is under heavy guard at the Central Republican Hospital.
The Russian hand grenade that triggered this case was manufactured in Armenia. The Armenian origin of Arutyunian has already caused some speculation. One rumor has him possibly connected with the Russian military bases currently stationed in Georgia. On July 21, Vladimir Kuparadze, Deputy Commander of the Group of Russian Troops in the Trans-Caucasus (GRTT) said that Arutyunian “has no connections with GRTT.”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. officials highly praised the work of the Georgian Interior Ministry. Nevertheless, several questions remain unanswered, such as why Arutyunian, if guilty, did not attempt to either hide or leave Georgia after the incriminating photos were released.
The main question, however, is whether Arutyunian is the actual person who tossed the grenade and, if so, whether he is an isolated individual or a pawn guided by others. Some Georgian intelligence experts doubt that Arutyunian had been recruited by any foreign special service, judging by his odd behavior after the unsuccessful attempt. However, Givi Targamadze, chair of the Georgian parliamentary committee for defense and security, and his deputy, Nika Rurua, argue that Arutyunian’s personality might make him easily manipulated by foreign intelligence agents.
In his July 23 interview, Arutyunian confirmed that he had intended to kill President Saakashvili and President Bush. He said that he had tried to throw the grenade in such a manner that, if it exploded, that fragments would spray beyond the bulletproof glass protecting the two men.
Tbilisi City Court sentenced Arutyunian to three months in pre-trial detention on July 23.
(TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Interfax-AVN, Gazeta.ru, Regnum July 20-24).