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Tbilisi - Georgian Interior Ministry forces shot dead 11 gunmen, and three of its own troops were killed in an operation to free hostages near the border with Russia, the ministry said on Wednesday.
It said five Interior Ministry officers had also been wounded near the frontier with Russia's Dagestan region, but did not give the nationality of the gunmen or say whether they had entered the country from Russia.
If the gunmen turn out to be from Russia, the incident could increase tension between Moscow and pro-Western Tbilisi, whose relations are still strained following a five-day war in August 2008 over two Russian-backed separatist regions in Georgia.
“We cannot talk about the nationality or origin of this terrorist group until the end of the operation,” Georgian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Salome Makharadze said.
She said the ministry had sent troops to the region in the north of the country on Tuesday to help local police seeking the release of several hostages. An unspecified number of hostages had been freed and there was at least one exchange of gunfire during the operation, she added.
A standoff continued on Wednesday, with the troops surrounding six militants in a Caucasus Mountain gorge.
On Tuesday, residents of a village 30 km (18 miles) from the border told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television they were concerned because five neighbours had been missing for days and they had seen men who appeared to be from Dagestan in the area.
Rustavi-2 later reported that gunmen had taken three groups of people hostage in the northern Kakheti region.
It was unclear whether there could have been any link with a shooting at a Russian border post in Dagestan late on Tuesday in which authorities said a border guard killed seven fellow servicemen before being shot.
Insurgents fighting to carve an Islamic state from the North Caucasus attack Russian officials and law enforcement personnel almost daily, and have also increasingly targeted mainstream Muslim leaders backed by the authorities.
It was not clear why militants in Dagestan might cross the border into the neighbouring former Soviet republic and seize hostages.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which is in charge of border guards, declined immediate comment. The Russian Foreign Ministry also declined comment.
Russia sent troops into Georgia in August 2008, repelling a Georgian offensive aimed at gaining control of separatist South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Moscow's support for 20 years.
The conflict also enveloped breakaway Abkhazia. Moscow recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries following the war and increased its military presence in the regions, drawing criticism from the United States and NATO.
Georgia, which holds a parliamentary election on October 1, and Russia still have no diplomatic relations and communicate through Swiss diplomats. - Reuters