A counter terrorism operation launched by Georgia’s State Security Service (SSG) turned into a deadly firefight on the capital’s outskirts.
In the early hours of November 22, a counter-terrorism unit of the SSG launched an offensive against what authorities called terrorist suspects in an apartment building in the Isani district, on Tbilisi's eastern edge. After negotiations broke down, the suspects began a fierce gunfight, according to the authorities, throwing grenades out the windows and injuring an SSG operative. The 41-year-old operative was later pronounced dead at 17:09 local time.
The security services said that according to their preliminary information, the suspects are not citizens of Georgia and are “members of a terrorist organization.” Speculation, naturally, turned immediately to the possibility of transnational groups like the Islamic State (IS). Authorities said they were working to identify the suspects, conducting investigations within Georgia and abroad.
However, the head of the village of Duisi, in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, told the Netgazeti news site that a relative of the flat’s owner responsible for taking on the tenants had been arrested in the village. The Pankisi Gorge is populated largely by Kists, Muslim people closely related to Chechens, and a number of men from the region have fought with IS in Syria and Iraq.
At one point, the SSG brought in Umar Idigov, head of the Georgian Chechen association “Caucasus Integration Foundation” to negotiate with the suspects before they attempted to storm the building a second time at 14:00.
A spokesperson for the SSG claimed that the building was evacuated before the operation began at 5:00 am. The nearby Public School #97 was also temporarily closed, along with a kindergarten.
But local media reports showed a number of residents leaving the area later, at around 11:30 am.
“We are locked in the bathroom,” a local resident told the Rustavi 2 television station in a phone call.
“All the windows are broken in the apartment. I’m staying here with my child and parents,” another resident said.
Other residents claim the suspects took hostages.
“The operation is being conducted against two Chechen families who have been living in this building for years - they even have children. We just learned they took our neighbors hostage,” a local resident told the ambebi.ge news portal.
United States Ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, commented on the incident, saying the safety of residents is of utmost importance.
“We are carefully observing the developments and we hope maximum safety measures are taken,” he added.
The claims about hostages remained unconfirmed as of the publication of this post.