Georgia Helicopter Shooting Still Shrouded in Mystery
The breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia held elections on December 7. Meanwhile, no answers have emerged to explain who shot down a helicopter full of United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) aid workers over the disputed Abkhazia region in early October. United Nations staff member Ermina Van Hoye, special assistant to the Special Representative of the Secretary General for the region, has kept EurasiaNet abreast of the investigation. [For further information, see EurasiaNet's Q&A archive].She recently spoke with contributor Robert Cutler.
EurasiaNet: Please accept my condolences for the recent loss of UNOMIG personnel in the helicopter shooting. You must have known personally the individuals who died. Why was the helicopter where it was, and exactly where was it?
Van Hoye: The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia mandate includes a provision "to patrol regularly the Kodori Valley." The UN helicopter downed on October 8th attempted to resume patrolling in the Upper Kodori Valley for the first time since October 2000, following recurrent hostage-taking incidents in which UNOMIG personnel were involved. The helicopter traveled about 20 kilometers into the Gulripsh region of Abkhazia, Georgia, and was downed by a missile at the entrance to the Abkhaz-controlled lower Kodori Valley. After the incident, patrolling of the Kodori Valley is again on hold.
EurasiaNet: Has anyone determined who shot it down and why?
Van Hoye: An investigation committee was established under Ukrainian chairmanship, with participation of the UN and the Georgian and Abkhaz sides. [The helicopter was registered in Ukraine.] The investigation is currently being conducted in Ukraine where parts of the debris, including the black box, have been brought for further examination. We are now awaiting the final report which may enable us to determine the causes of the crash. The tragic incident underscores the lack of ability of the two sides to guarantee the safety of UN personnel at all times in the areas under their jurisdiction.
EurasiaNet: News reports give circumstantial confirmation that Chechen fighters in the Kodori Gorge came from the Pankisi Gorge with a Georgian Interior Ministry escort. There are also indications that Georgian partisans reinforced these fighters, who then attempted to regain the North Caucasus in Russia via the so-called "Abkhazian Svanetia." [The Abkhazian Svanetia is a term for the Georgian-controlled Pankisi Gorge.] What substance is there to the alleged Pankisi/Kodori connection?
Van Hoye: It seems established that irregular armed groups had assembled on Georgian-controlled territory, some of them obviously from the Pankisi Gorge, without interference by the authorities. All other news items are mere speculation and, as you are aware, contradictory
versions are being spread around. UNOMIG has no reliable way of monitoring for ourselves precisely how these fighters ended up in the Kodori Gorge because for security reasons we cannot patrol the area.
EurasiaNet: Are there fighters still in the Kodori Gorge?
Van Hoye: UNOMIG, for the time being, has no means of independently verifying whether there were and still are fighters in the Kodori Gorge. Relying on sources in Georgia, some of the fighters seem to have crossed into the Russian Federation, others are still in the upper
part of the Kodori Gorge; still others reportedly have returned to the Pankisi Valley. But once again, I would like to stress that UNOMIG, at this point, does not have access and thus cannot confirm or refute these statements.
EurasiaNet: Are the Russian peacekeepers keeping their pledge to let humanitarian supplies such as food go through their checkpoints?
Van Hoye: As far as we can judge, CIS PKF lets humanitarian supplies pass, but remains on guard following an incident on October 11 when a convoy of Georgian trucks was stopped at the checkpoint and turned out to contain weaponry, in addition to foodstuffs.
EurasiaNet: You were in the Abhkazian district of Gali and the Georgian district of Zugdidi recently. What conditions did you find there?
Van Hoye: A substantial portion of the pre-war population has returned to the Gali district on a more or less permanent basis. People are attracted by the fertile soil that can be cultivated for personal and commercial use - especially to Lower Gali, which constitutes a buffer zone between
Abkhazia, Georgia and Georgia proper. It is evident that the stabilization of this region is key for overall conflict settlement. UNOMIG has made a significant contribution to providing a
degree of security by patrolling the area without major interruptions since the establishment of the mission in 1994.
EurasiaNet: Has there been any success in trying again to resettle refugees from Gali area back in the region?
Van Hoye: Conscious efforts were made to prevent the October clashes in Kodori from spreading into the Gali district and avoid a repetition of the May 1998 clashes, when people were forced to flee for a second time. Traces of war and destruction are very much alive still and the need for humanitarian assistance is acute. This conclusion is also reflected in the report of the Joint Assessment Mission to the Gali district, conducted between November 20 and 24 of 2000 under the aegis of the UN in close cooperation with the OSCE and with participation of a range of other intergovernmental organizations. This report contains a catalogue of recommendations for the normalization of the situation in the Gali district, and addresses the need for infrastructure rehabilitation, including schools.
We are pleased that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees resumed its operations in Gali after it pulled out in 1998; at present it assists with the rehabilitation of 22 schools in the Gali district by providing shelter material while village communities contribute their labor.
EurasiaNet: What about Zugdidi?
Van Hoye: Zugdidi has a large internally-displaced concentration living in dire circumstances, among others in IDP collective centers.
EurasiaNet: Do all of them still want to go back after all the repeated problems they have had there in the past?
Van Hoye: People are tired of having been displaced for 8 years now; their morale is low and they have become especially vulnerable to propaganda, which advocates a violent way of solving the conflict, and to recruitment into partisan movements. Our UNOMIG civil and political affairs officers in Gali and Zugdidi aim at remedying needs through small-scale projects, which seek to establish better links between the people, organizations and authorities across the cease-fire line.