The two officers of the United Nations Mission of Observers in Georgia (UNOMIG), who were abducted by Svan highlanders in the Kodori Gorge on December 10, were released four days later and are now in Tbilisi. Lieutenant-Colonel Zbigniew Lehacz of Poland and Captain Evstafios Kokilidis of Greece had been seized while patrolling a sector situated between two Russian military posts on the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line.
The Georgian president’s representative for Svaneti, Emzar Kvitsiani, obtained the officers’ release in face-to-face negotiations with the masked gunmen in their Kodori Gorge hideout. Kvitsiani asserts that he successfully intimidated the captors through threats of force. He declines to specify whether they demanded ransom–which is widely assumed to be the case–and denies that ransom was paid. UNOMIG disclaims knowledge on the matter. In similar incidents in October 1999 and June 2000, circumstantial evidence suggested that Georgian authorities and UNOMIG paid ransom to gain the release of Mission officers, though Tbilisi denied it and the UN disclaimed knowledge. Most likely, they decided in all these cases tacitly to depart from the UN’s no-ransom policy.
At UN headquarters in New York, Russia’s Ambassador Sergei Lavrov construed the abduction of the two officers by Svans as a “manifestation of international terrorism.” That interpretation appeared intended to preface a Russian offer to mount an “antiterrorism” operation in Georgia of the kind which Moscow currently proposes to conduct in the Pankisi Gorge (see Chechnya Weekly, December 11). The Georgian authorities were therefore doubly anxious to defuse the situation in Kodori quickly and painlessly.
In Moscow, meanwhile, the Georgian embassy rejected televised allegations–sourced to Russian intelligence services–that airplanes presumed to be Georgian were shuttling between Georgia and Chechnya to drop supplies for Chechen forces. With that, the anti-Georgian propaganda campaign escalated by a further notch. The tale is not unprecedented, however. It had been aired against Azerbaijan in 1995-96 during the first war in Chechnya. At that time, Russian intelligence chiefs and “power ministers” such as Mikhail Barsukov were claiming that “international terrorists” from many countries flew supplies and gunmen to Chechnya from Azerbaijani airfields. Moscow did not show any evidence to support such claims then or now. The Georgian embassy’s statement challenged the Russian side to supply the evidence to Tbilisi and to order the Russian air defense to shoot down the alleged airplanes (Kavkasia-Press, Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television, Itar-Tass, December 13-14; see the Monitor, October 18, 1999, June 6, December 13, 2000).