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Georgian government denies ‘ethnic conflict’ amidst clashes in Dmanisi

17 May 2021
The scene outside the regional police office on 17 May in Dmanisi. Photo via TV4.

Clashes have erupted between groups of ethnic Georgians and ethnic Azerbaijanis since Sunday in the southeast Georgian town of Dmanisi. Georgian opposition groups have criticised government authorities over police inactivity.

Two large groups engaged in street fights for the second day on Monday. The altercations have resulted in several arrests and a number of injuries; no official numbers have yet been made available.

On Monday afternoon, police set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town in an apparent attempt to prevent supporters of either group from entering the town.

The conflict began on Sunday evening, and sparked off again on Monday as one group demanded that several people detained by the police be released.

The conflict began after two men were not allowed to open a tab to purchase beer at a local shop on Sunday. 

Saida Ismailova, the shop assistant on duty, told journalists that ‘three to four’ men threatened to hit her after she refused to give them the beer for free with the promise of later payment, and that her father-in-law was attacked by the men after he intervened in the dispute.

Ismailova said that police initially questioned her and her father-in-law, and that after the two of them returned from the police station to the store, a group of ‘around 40’ men armed with sticks arrived and attacked them outside the shop. 

On Monday, Georgia’s Interior Ministry said that they had ‘identified the persons involved in the confrontation’ and called on local residents to remain calm. 

‘The Interior Ministry once again appeals to the opposing sides to obey the lawful demands of the police and remain calm, and not to contribute to artificially escalating a conflict that started with a mundane reason into an ethnic one’, the statement reads. 

A similar message was delivered by Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who arrived in Dmanisi on Monday. He vowed to punish the guilty parties to the fullest extent of the law. 

The minister also mentioned Azerbaijan which he called ‘our strategic partner, our ally, our friend’ and insisted that what happened was not an ethnic conflict.   

Gomelauri also admitted while in Dmanisi that additional police forces mobilised yesterday ‘were not enough’. Police officers mostly tried to prevent members of the conflicting sides, some of whom were armed with sticks, hammers, hoes, and stones, from approaching each other. 

The clashing groups were reportedly composed of ethnic Georgians from the Svaneti region, who began to be settled in the town during the Soviet period, and ethnic Azerbaijanis. 

Several Georgian opposition groups including the United National Movement (UNM), Lelo, and European Georgia parties condemned what they described as the police’s failure to stop the violence.

The UNM’s Roman Gotsiridze called on Vakhtang Gomelauri to resign for not sending enough police forces to the region.

Similar criticism was voiced by the Tbilisi-based Social Justice Centre, which urged the authorities to mobilise greater numbers of police officers.

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