Several buses with a couple of hundred people were stuck at the Russian-Georgian border near Kazbegi in northern Georgia for the fourth day, in the wake of heightened security measures, stepped up by Russian authorities after a terrorist act in Russia’s North Ossetian town of Beslan which took at least 340 lives. Meanwhile, a crew from the Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 television which filmed coverage of the Beslan school siege has been under arrest in North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz for the last three days.
The North Ossetian section of the Georgian-Russian border remains closed by the Russian authorities following the terrorist act in the North Ossetian town of Beslan on September 1-3.
“We are out of money. At least someone could send a doctor for us, as there are ailing passengers in the buses. Now we are also suffering from this terrible terrorist act [in Beslan],” Azeri citizens en route to North Ossetia told Georgian television on September 6.
The Russia’s North Caucasus regional border guard service reported on September 6 that a total of 320 people were denied while crossing the North Ossetian section of the Russian border last weekend at the Verkhni Lars and Nizhniy Zaramag border checkpoints.
“The border is still closed by the Russian side and movement across the border is impossible. It is also unclear yet how long the borders will be closed,” Shalva Londaridze, a spokesman for the Georgian Border Guard Department told Civil Georgia on September 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who paid a brief visit to Beslan on September 4 after the bloody end of the school siege, ordered the closer of the borders of the North Ossetian Republic.
While addressing the National Security Council session on September 4 Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said that he also ordered the Georgian Border Guard Department to heighten controls on the border with Russia.
Georgia even sent ambulance cars to Beslan on September 3 after Russian forces stormed the school building, but the ambulance crews never reached their destination, as the borders were already closed.
The Kazbegi checkpoint is the only land border linking Georgia with Russia that is controlled by official Tbilisi. Another passage, which links Georgia with North Ossetia, is through breakaway South Ossetia, via the Roki Tunnel.
“We have no information whether the Roki Tunnel is closed or not, as the Georgian Border Guard Department can not control that section of the border,” Shalva Londaridze told Civil Georgian on September 7.
However, a source in the Georgian Security Ministry told Civil Georgia on September 7 that at the moment the Roki Tunnel is also closed down by the Russian authorities.
There have been speculations in the Georgian media that there might be a possible link between the terrorist act in Beslan and breakaway South Ossetia. Tbilisi-based Mze television reported earlier that number plates of the van used by the hostage-takers who seized the school in Beslan indicated that the car was registered in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia. But no official confirmation of this report has come so far.
Georgian Parliamentary Chairpersons Nino Burjanadze told reporters on September 6 that the Georgian special services are probing this report. “I cannot say anything for sure now; the Georgian special services are checking up the report at the moment,” Nino Burjanadze said.
Meanwhile, journalist at Rustavi 2 TV Nana Lezhava and cameraman Levan Tetvadze were sentenced by a court in Vladikavkaz to pre-trial detention on September 6. North Ossetian law enforcement agencies did not allow either Rustavi 2 representatives or officials from the Georgian embassy to Russia visit Lezhava and Tetvadze in their cell.
The Rustavi 2 TV crew was arrested by local police officials in the town of Beslan on September 4 and accused of illegally crossing the state border. North Ossetian police officials Nana Lezhava and Levan Tetvadze had no Russian visas or special journalist accreditations issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
However, Rustavi 2 television claims that Nana Lezhava and Levan Tetvadze did not need a Russian visa to visit Russia’s North Ossetian Republic owing to the fact that they had IDs issued by the administration of Kazbegi, a town in northern Georgia which neighbors Russia. According to an agreement between the two countries, residents of regions adjacent to the state border between Russia and Georgia can move across the border without visas.
A group of Georgian journalists held a protest rally outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi on September 6 demanding the immediate release of the Georgian journalists. Rustavi 2 claims that their journalists were arrested because they were offering “objective coverage of the Beslan events.”
Meanwhile, President Saakashvili, following a condolence message sent to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin regarding the Beslan tragedy, sent a second letter to Kremlin which urged Putin “to personally facilitate a release of the Georgian journalists.”
Russian Ambassador to Georgian Vladimir Chkhikvishvili told reporters on September 7 that the Russian Foreign Ministry “is actively engaged in the process of solving this case.” He also expressed hope that the incident “will end positively.”