Georgia’s government has remained silent about the nationality of foreign gunmen killed in a large-scale police operation in Tbilisi on Wednesday.
Officials said they would not comment on the identity of the suspects, as the investigation is ongoing, while Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said their nationality or ethnicity did “not matter”.
The lack of verified information prompted speculation about the incident, in which security forces battled with unidentified armed men for almost 24 hours in an apartment block on the outskirts of the capital.
The special forces operation ended with four deaths, including three suspects and one security officer.
Local media reported the suspects’ apartment was owned by an ethnic Chechen, leading to assumptions that Chechens were involved in the incident.
“Nothing is really known about what happened yesterday,” said Sulkhan Bordzikashvili, an ethnic Chechen from Pankisi Valley, an area of east Georgia dominated by the ethnicity from neighbouring Russia’s autonomous republic of Chechnya.
“It is still unknown who they [the criminals] were, but it [the incident] was very casually pinned on Pankisi,” Bordzikashvili added.
“Now even if the investigation shows that they were not from Pankisi, public opinion will remain negative towards it. In social media, people started bashing ethnic Chechens from early on,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Tbilisi.
“‘They should be exiled’, ‘they should be killed’, such messages are circulating on social media from different profiles since yesterday. It’s a terrible story.”
Pankisi Valley, 160km northeast from Tbilisi, is a majority Sunni Muslim part of predominantly Orthodox Christian Georgia.
The area is seen by many Georgians as dangerous due to the presence of anti-Russian fighters, who sheltered there from neighbouring Chechnya during the second Russian-Chechen war in the 1990s, and many cases of abductions and killings in that period.
Most recently it attracted negative attention due to the large amount of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) recruits that joined the armed group under the leadership of Pankisi resident late Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Omar al-Shishani.
However, since the death of Batirashvili and Georgia’s crackdown on local ISIL recruiters two years ago, Pankisi’s bad image started to fade.
“In the last couple of years, things were improving. We’re trying to do everything to improve things, we’re waiting for tourism to take off, and now all of a sudden Pankisi’s name is linked to terrorists,” Leila Avchashvili, Pankisi resident and mother of two late ISIL fighters, told Al Jazeera from her village of Jokolo.
“What happened is a deplorable fact. We are all very concerned of course, like any level-headed person,” she said.
“We, Pankisi Valley residents, know the value of peace and solidarity. We should wait for the results of the investigation. It will be very regrettable if Pankisi is linked to terrorism.”
Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Georgia’s prime minister, called on the public not to emphasise the ethnicity or nationality of the criminals.
“It does not matter, which country’s citizens they are. We should not emphasise their ethnicity and nationality,” he said, answering a question about the identity of the gunmen. “Fact is that they rejected a peaceful offer to surrender to the police, answering by shooting,” Kvirikashvili said.
Georgian media coverage of the incident was criticised by the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, a non-profit organisation, for “referring to citizens as ‘terrorists’ based on unverified information and linking them to a certain ethnic group”.
“Such information only kindles negative stereotypes and helps stigmatisation,” the charter said in a statement, calling on media organisations to avoid reporting unverified comments.
Local media was broadcasting live from the scene of the unrest on Wednesday, showing the security forces’ manoeuvres from a distance with a slight delay in time to avoid compromising the operation.
The live coverage prompted criticism from various organisations, officials who deemed it irresponsible journalism due to the risks involved on all sides.
“Media has a responsibility to refrain from reporting in detail on anti-terrorism or defence actions, which could result in a radical group’s change of action and the failure of an operation,” the charter said.
Mariam Gaprindashvili, who was reporting live from the scene for about 18 hours on Wednesday for the private television station, Rustavi 2, told Al Jazeera that she and her colleagues were covering the incident from outside the cordoned-off area.
“It was the largest cordoned-off territory I have ever seen, about 5km,” she said. “The operation lasted so long that it seems the gunmen were very well prepared for the fight.”
Nika Rurua, a member of National Movement opposition party, told Al Jazeera that it was not the time for blaming anyone for their role in the incident, including the government.
“Wednesday’s events point to the crumbling of the security system in the country. How come these people with such a big stash of weapons that are not even sold in Georgia have gone unnoticed for two years [of their alleged residency in the apartment],” he said.
“I hope now the incident will be investigated thoroughly and the public will find out who these people were and how so much weaponry was amassed by them.”
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