A man who took over a dozen hostages at gunpoint in a bank in the west-Georgian town of Zugdidi has been allowed to leave and remains at large.
In the early hours of Thursday, the Interior Ministry reported that all the hostages had been released unharmed but that they were still looking for the perpetrator.
The hostage standoff began on Wednesday afternoon after a man in military attire holding an automatic rifle fired several times after entering a Bank of Georgia office in Zugdidi.
According to witness accounts, with an unpinned grenade in his hand, the assailant held at least 19 people under his immediate control on the second floor of the office. The man contacted TV channel Mtavari Arkhi to demand $500,000 and safe departure to an undefined location.
Police claimed that as a result of ‘difficult and long negotiations’, they had freed 43 hostages throughout the day. Several people were seen being evacuated from the fire escape and roof of the building early on.
Before midnight, an armoured car typically used to transport money was spotted arriving at the scene. The authorities have not said if he was given the requested money.
Footage from late on Wednesday night showed a man with what appeared to be a grenade in his hand exiting the bank surrounded by four individuals, including the Head of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Regional Police, Avtandil Galdava.
According to the Interior Ministry, Galdava replaced the hostages.
The footage showed the man leaving the location in a car with Galdava and at least two other individuals.
As speculation continues over the current whereabouts of the hostage-taker, the authorities have not provided details of his location.
Russian state-run outlet Sputnik Abkhazia quoted the Abkhazian authorities as saying that he would not be allowed to enter Abkhazia.
The head of Abkhazia’s Security Council, Sergey Shamba, told Tbilisi-based outlet Sova that ‘search operations were underway in the region’ and that they would hand the perpetrator to Georgia if he was caught.
Zugdidi is about 11 kilometres from the Enguri Bridge, which connects Abkhazia with Georgia’s Samegrelo region. The checkpoint near the bridge is tightly controlled by Russian border guards.
Coming 10 days before parliamentary elections, the standoff has also led to political speculations and accusations from the ruling and opposition parties.
Speaking with pro-governmental TV channel Imedi on Thursday, parliamentary majority leader Mamuka Mdinaradze ‘allowed’ that it could be a coincidence that Irakli Kvaratskhelia, one of the hostages, who was forced by the assailant to contact the media, was a United National Movement Party (UNM) supporter.
The comment gave credence to a conspiracy theory circulated on Facebook that the opposition group was behind a hostage crisis.
The theory received a more straightforward endorsement from Bondo Mdzianarashvili, a journalist and member of the board of trustees of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, who claimed the hostage crisis was staged by the UNM ‘cult’.
Facebook, which recently partnered with Georgian fact-checker groups, flagged his post as false information.
There has also been widespread speculation online, also without evidence, that the standoff was staged by the government. Nanuka Zhorzholiani, who is running as an MP for the UNM, suggested that the situation appeared ‘artificial’ and ‘unbelievable’.
Georgian Dream’s Executive Secretary, Irakli Kobakhidze, avoided commenting on Mdinaradze’s statement but condemned ‘some media’ for their ‘alarming and astounding’ coverage. He also condemned the opposition for making ‘political statements’.
On Wednesday night, a fistfight broke out between the far-right Georgian March’s Giorgi Gabedava and supporters of Gigi Ugulava from the European Georgia Party. Both are running as local majoritarian candidates in the elections.
During the hostage crisis, several media outlets stopped the live broadcasts from the ground citing a demand from the authorities.
On Wednesday, the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics urged the media to cover the then-ongoing standoff with the ‘utmost care’ and without relaying details of police actions that could become available to the hostage-taker.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.