A Georgian paramilitary group operating under the name “Patriots for Abkhazia” in the Gali District of the breakaway region has recently emerged as a tool to crack down on, as it says, “Georgian traitors” collaborating with the secessionist authorities of Abkhazia. Sokhumi says the group has close links to the Georgian special services, is a threat to security in Gali and hinders confidence-building between the conflicting sides.
The group’s activities first came to public attention on the eve of the February 11 local self-governance elections in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia mainly due to coverage provided by Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 television. The trend seems to be continuing on the eve of the breakaway region's March 4 parliamentary elections.
On February 23, Rustavi 2 TV reported that the “Patriots for Abkhazia” have burned down 12 houses of Georgians in the Gali District who are suspected of collaborating with the Abkhaz authorities. Raids were carried out in the villages of Nabakevi, Otobaia, Bargebi and Chuburkhinji of the Gali District during the past two days, according to Rustavi 2. No independent confirmation of the report was available.
The Abkhaz sources have denied that dozen of houses were burned down in the Gali District, but Abkhaz news agency Apsnipress reported that a cowshed belonging to an official from the local election administration Temur Morgoshia was burned down in the village of Bargebi no February 23. Earlier he has been intimidated and blackmailed via phone to stop cooperation with the Abkhaz authorities, Apsnipress reported.
In its news program on February 23 the television station showed a short interview with an unnamed man in a black mask saying that the group will continue its reprisals of those cooperating with the secessionist authorities.
“Despite the fact that most Georgians were against participating in the elections, some traitor Georgians still appeared who were financed by Abkhaz and Russian sources and who were going door-by-door with Abkhaz separatists and forcing locals to cast their ballots,” the unknown man identified a member of the “Patriots for Abkhazia” group told Rustavi 2 TV.
“Let everyone know that no one will escape punishment for treason; let every one know that we have enough force to settle scores with traitors,” he added.
According to previous reports by Rustavi 2 TV, “Patriots for Abkhazia” is mainly composed of local Georgians from Gali who are trying to resist repression against Georgians in the Gali District.
So far the group has claimed responsibility for disseminating leaflets among the local population in the Gali District calling for a boycott of the elections and promoting other non-violent campaigns.
The Abkhaz side claims that Georgian Interior Ministry-sponsored groups were also responsible for the February 3 abduction of Davit Sigua, an ethnic Georgian who was a head of the Gali District's local election commission, as well as for the killings of two influential Abkhaz warlords in December 2006. The Georgian side denied any links to these cases.
Officials in Tbilisi also strongly deny that the Georgian Interior Ministry’s units operate under the cover of “Patriots of Abkhazia.”
“I have no information about this group… The Georgian State has nothing to do with masked men,” MP Nika Rurua, a deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security, told Civil Georgia on February 23.
Georgian paramilitary groups, including the Forest Brothers and White Legion, operated in the Gali District after the armed conflict in the breakaway region in early 90s, but both groups were disbanded by President Saakashvili’s administration in February 2004. The move was hailed by Sokhumi as a step towards confidence-building.