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Saakashvili threatens police operation in Abkhazia over detained journalist

By Christina Tashkevich
Thursday, February 28
President Mikheil Saakashvili demanded yesterday that Abkhaz separatist authorities release a Georgian journalist detained the day before, threatening to send Georgian police to free him if they don’t.

Abkhaz authorities responded by saying they won’t answer to ultimatums.

On February 26, Georgian media reported that Mze TV journalist Malkhaz Basilaia was detained in secessionist Abkhazia near the administrative border with Georgia. Later, de facto Abkhaz authorities said two other Georgians, Davit Tsotsoria and Tsotsoria’s mother, have also been detained.

Georgian journalists claimed Abkhaz militia destroyed the crew’s camera, while Saakashvili alleged Basilaia is being tortured in a Sokhumi prison.

“I want to tell [de facto Abkhaz president] Sergey Bagapsh in the Georgian language, which he understands perfectly: either Bagapsh immediately orders his illegal police to stop torturing and release the kidnapped journalist, or I, president of Georgia, will issue a very lawful order to Georgian police to free Basilaia in Sokhumi,” Saakashvili said yesterday evening.

However, Bagapsh spokesman Kristian Bzhania said later afterward that the detained Georgians will face a court hearing. The Abkhaz authorities will not answer to the ultimatums of the Georgian president, he added.

“President of Abkhazia Sergey Bagapsh won’t comment on the emotional, unrestrained and near-hysterical [statement] of the Georgian leader,” Bzhania told the separatist news agency Apsnypress.

Bagapsh himself said yesterday there would be no negotiations over the detained journalist, while de facto Abkhaz foreign minister Sergey Shamba told reporters it is “counterproductive [for Saakashvili] to speak to us in such a tone,” adding that the Georgian president’s comments are pushing the two sides “towards war.”

The separatist authorities said the three detained Georgians confessed to “illegally crossing the border” without permission to enter the breakaway region. Tbilisi does not recognize any border with Abkhazia, which is de jure Georgian territory.

The Abkhaz security service claimed Davit Tsotsoria is a cameraman from Mze TV; the television station, however, says he does not work for them.

In a statement released yesterday, Mze TV accuses the de facto authorities of trying to increase the charges against Basilaia by suggesting he had a camera crew.

“The de facto [Abkhaz] government claims the journalist tried to go to Sokhumi to prepare a biased story. Mze TV officially states that the journalist planned to document voting in the Russian presidential election in Gali [the southern portion of Abkhazia],” the television station’s statement said.

Later yesterday, the de facto Abkhaz authorities released a tape of Abkhazian reporters quizzing the detained Georgians.

Basilaia says he gave 1000 rubles to the Abkhaz police to be allowed to enter Abkhazia. In the video footage, he did not elaborate on what he planned to do in Abkhazia.

Asked if they have been physically abused, Basilaia did not clearly respond, but the other two detainees said they had not.