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Unease in Abkhazia after manhunt for ‘armed saboteurs’ provides no answers

9 November 2023
A helicopter and soldier taking part in the search. Screengrab via Apsny Yakhya

A search for ‘armed saboteurs’ in Abkhazia has found ‘no trace’ after searching throughout the night, leading to questions if an incursion actually took place.

Reports of the supposed incursion first emerged in a Telegram post on Wednesday night by Russian state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. 

The post, which has since been deleted, claimed that a ‘sabotage group’ of ‘up to 50 people’ had entered Abkhazia with the aim of committing an act of terrorism against Sukhumi (Sukhum) airport. He stated that the source of the information was Abkhazia’s Defence Ministry. 

The information was swiftly shared online in Abkhazia and classes were cancelled in several schools on Thursday as a result.

 At 11:00 on Thursday morning Apsny Yakhya, a news agency run by Abkhazia’s security forces, cited Interior Minister Robert Kiut as saying that a search had found ‘no traces of the sabotage group’, but that the operation was continuing.

They reported that security forces had ‘searched and combed the area all night’, with both ground forces and aerial surveillance. 

They added that Abkhazia’s vice president, interior minister, head of the state security service, first deputy minister of defence, chair of the state security service, speaker of parliament, and chair of the parliamentary committee on defence and national security were all present at the site of the search. 

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As events unfolded, a number of journalists in Abkhazia expressed frustration and outrage at the authorities’ failure to communicate with them or make any public statements until Thursday morning.

The authorities declined to comment to local media on Wednesday evening. However, at midnight, Russian state media Sputnik cited Interior Minister Robert Kiut as telling them that the security forces were searching for seven armed people near the village of Azanta, around 25 kilometres east of Sukhumi. 

Kiut said that information regarding their presence in Abkhazia had come from hunters. 

‘They were armed with foreign weapons, presumably M4 assault rifles, wearing black uniforms, masks and helmets, and well equipped. They also had a drone that flew over the area’, Kiut was quoted as saying. 

The M4 is an American-made weapon in service with the Georgian Armed Forces.

Later that evening Izvestia, another Russian media outlet, quoted Kiut as telling them that information regarding the ‘saboteurs’ had been investigated, but was ‘not confirmed’. 

The lack of official information led to widespread speculation, with popular theories including that the purported saboteurs were in fact playing airsoft.

Some noted that the original source of the information, Vladimir Solovyov, was close to Abkhazia’s Foreign Minister Inal Ardzinba. This led to suggestions the information had come not from Abkhazia’s security services but from the foreign ministry. 

Aslan Kobakhia a prominent veteran and public figure, suggested in a post widely shared online that while the sighting of ‘saboteurs’ could have been an innocent mistake, the incident might now be being deliberately manipulated by the government. 

Kobakhia added that while it would take time to definitively identify what had taken place, it was ‘obvious’ to him that someone in Abkhazia’s security services was pursuing ‘completely different goals’, and not Abkhazia’s security.  

 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.