55 people, 17 civilians and 38 police officers were injured today according to the Ministry of Interior in Georgia’s mountainous Pankisi gorge.
Tensions have flared today as the locals protesting the construction of the hydro power plant have clashed with the riot police, deployed near village Dzibakhevi at the request of the Ministry of Economy, to protect the construction workers, the police stated.
Locals have long been protesting the construction works on the series of small powerplants, fearing possible loss of drinking and irrigation water. They have managed to halt the construction of this particular five mgwt capacity powerplant, “Khadori-3” in June 2018.
According to the Reg.Info news agency, the decision to resume construction was communicated to the locals on April 18 by the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Maia Tskitishvili, Minister for Environment and Agriculture Levan Davitashvili and Deputy Minister of Economy Natia Turnava (who was appointed Minister the same evening).
Standoff between the locals and the riot police has escalated around 11 am, local time when protesters confronted the officers separating them from the construction site. Police used batons against the protesters, but were forced to withdraw few meters behind as locals threw stones at them.
Officers responded with firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and returned to their initial position. Standoff ensured for few hours. Deputy Interior Minister Kakha Sabanadze was on the ground, who tried to ease tensions by offering the community leaders and protesters to meet the Minister of Interior, Giorgi Gakharia in Telavi, the regional center of Kakheti region.
The clashes have intensified mid-day, however, as protesters responded angrily to deployment of the additional police force into the area, while the talks with Minister Gakharia were under way. The construction machinery was burned down, and several police cars damaged.
Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia arrived on the scene shortly after the incident. Locals agreed to cease the demonstration after the community leaders agreed with the Minister that the authorities would remove the riot police from the area.
Speaking after the talks, Gakharia said the company building the power plant would halt the construction works and continue talks with the local residents. “We have decided to postpone the power plant construction and agreed on the following – it will only be built, if 90% of locals support it,” he noted.
Gakharia said, however, that the police would maintain enhanced presence in the area. He also stressed those guilty of assaulting the police would be identified and held accountable. “We have to calm down now and do what corresponds to the centuries-old history of our brotherhood and inter-relations,” the Minister added.
Emzar Tokhosashvili, one of the protest leaders, said after the talks that there is near-absolute consensus in Pankisi that the power plant will not be built. “Only 2-3% of local residents might be in favor of building it, the rest are against… The government is not doing anything to develop the area, they are protecting the interests of investors only,” he noted.
In a statement later on April 21, the Interior Ministry said it is leading the investigation into the incident under articles 353 and 187 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, involving assault on police officer and damage by setting fire.