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Authorities remain tight-lipped amidst speculation surrounding Tbilisi counterterror siege

24 November 2017
Police near the flat where suspects were holed-up (Luka Pertaia/OC Media)

One person has so far been detained in connection to the counterterrorism operation in Tbilisi’s Isani District on 23 November. Authorities have promised to disclose further details in upcoming days, but have neither confirmed nor denied media speculation as to the identities of the alleged terrorists.

Unconfirmed media reports have suggested that Akhmed Chatayev, a member of the Islamic State who Turkey accuses of plotting the 2016 Istanbul airport attack, was the target of the operation. The 21-hour siege left one member of the State Security Service (SSG) dead and two more were wounded, along with two police officers. Three suspects were killed during the operation.

Who has been arrested?

The suspect, who has not been named, was charged on 24 November in Tbilisi City Court with ‘Illegally purchasing, keeping, and carrying firearms, ammunition, explosive substances and explosive devices for terrorist purposes’ and ‘joining a terrorist organisation of a foreign country and helping it in terrorist activity’. If convicted, he faces 10–17 years in prison. The next court hearing will take place on 16 January.

According to his lawyer Imeda Karkashadze, the suspect denies all charges or any connection to terrorism, and has elected to remain silent.

Georgian authorities declined to reveal the nationality of the suspect, but Karkashadze confirmed on 23 November that he is a citizen of Russia.

[Read on OC Media: Three terror suspects dead after 21 hour siege in Tbilisi]

Detained suspect

The suspect was detained on 21 November, before the counterterrorism operation was launched.

(Luka Pertaia/OC Media)

‘Law enforcement officers detained [the suspect] based on a tip-off on 21 November. At the time of his detention he was found with illegally purchased firearms and cartridges’, the Prosecutor’s Office said on 24 November.

According to them, he had rented the flat on Gabriel Salosi Street where the counterterror operation took place with three others. They did not say when.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the group ‘illegally kept large quantities of explosives, ammunition, explosive devices ands firearms purchased for terrorist purposes’.

The State Security Service said on 22 November that they had tried to negotiate the group’s surrender, but the suspects refused.

According to the Prosecutor's Office, the three suspects inside the flat then detonated hand grenades and opened fire at officers, injuring five; one later died in hospital.

Who were the other three suspects?

The Prosecutor’s Office claimed on 24 November that the identity of the men killed during the operation has not yet been confirmed, and that they are working on it.

However, on 22 November the State Security Service of Georgia announced in a briefing to journalists after the siege came to an end that the suspects had been under surveillance for several weeks.

None of the members of the group were Georgian citizens, they said, but declined to give further details. They have not named which terrorist group they were allegedly members of.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has urged people not to emphasise their nationality.

The owner of the flat

The flat on Gabriel Salosi Street, where the suspects were staying belongs to Aslanbeg Jabrailov, according to RegInfo, a local media outlet that has been tracking Georgians fighting abroad.

Jabrailov was questioned by authorities on 22 November but released later that day. He has declined to comment to the media.

Georgian news site Netgazeti cited local government representative Tamar Margoshvili of Pankisi Valley’s Duisi village as saying that Jabrailov’s relative, Rizvan Gornikashvili, who had found tenants for the flat, had been arrested.

The State Security Service neither confirmed nor denied this report to OC Media. However, RegInfo, citing friends of Gornikashvili’s, wrote that he had been released soon after his detention.

Was Akhmed Chatayev the target?

Georgian authorities including the Prosecutor’s Office have continued to deny that any of the men have been identified.

However, there has been widespread media speculation that the target of the operation was Akhmed Chatayev, a member of the Islamic State who Turkey accuses of plotting the 2016 Istanbul airport attack, which killed 45 people.

Chatayev was wounded and detained during the 2012 'Lopota Incident' in eastern Georgia, which left at least 11 Chechen militants and three members of the State Security Services dead. Details of what the militants were doing on Georgian territory are still not clear, and Chatayev was subsequently released.

Georgian TV Channel Imedi reported, citing an unidentified source, that Chatayev was one of the three in the flat, adding that one of them had blown themselves up during the operation.

Another outlet, Accent, reported based on ‘a source’ that it was Chatayev who blew himself up.

Akhmed Chatayev, a member of the Islamic State Turkey accuses of plotting the 2016 Istanbul airport attack (IPN)

Turkish pro-government news site the Daily Sabah reported in English that Chatayev was one of the dead, prompting more speculation in Georgian media. However, the Daily Sabah’s reporting was based on unidentifiable ‘reports’. They referenced another Turkish outlet, Habertürk, which simply said ‘it was assumed’ that Chatayev was killed.

Chatayev’s death, or his presence in Georgia, has not been confirmed by Georgian authorities. Prosecutor Irakli Marshania said in Court on 24 November ‘I cannot tell you whether Chatayev is killed or not, identification of the bodies is still in progress’.

When asked on 23 November whether Chatayev was among the dead, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia said these were ‘versions and interpretations’.

A member of parliament Sopio Kiladze said on 24 November in reference to this that ‘we probably have a situation where misinformation is spread’.

Al Jazeera wrote on 23 November that it was the lack of verified information has prompted speculation about the incident.

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