MOSCOW – Russia claimed it has foiled a plot to attack the host city of Sochi both before and during the 2014 Winter Olympics, saying its agents discovered caches of weapons that included grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles.
Government security officials blamed Chechen separatists and neighboring Georgia in the plot, although Georgian officials denied any links with the militants and called Thursday's accusations a sign of Moscow's "severe paranoia."
Experts on the Caucasus region added, however, that the tiny breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia, just a few miles east of Sochi on the Black Sea, could pose a realistic threat to the security of the games — a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Caucasus region is plagued with near-daily violence linked to an Islamist insurgency that spread from the Russian province of Chechnya to neighboring areas in the 1990s.
The disclosure of the alleged plot against the 2014 Games came as officials held a ceremony in Greece to kindle the flame that will be carried to London and burn throughout the Summer Olympics, which begin July 27.
Russia's National Anti-Terrorist Committee said the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, had discovered 10 caches of weapons and ammunition on May 4-5 in Abkhazia. Among the items seized were portable surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, flame throwers, grenades, rifles, explosives and maps, the security service said.
Authorities said the terrorists were planning to smuggle the explosives and arms into Sochi "between 2012 and 2014 to use them during the preparations and during the games." They did not elaborate on how they reached this conclusion.
According to the committee, the FSB suspects the mastermind of the plot is Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, whom it alleges has close ties to Georgia's secret service. The committee said Umarov had coordinated the delivery of the weapons and ammunition to Abkhazia, although it did not further specify his involvement.
Umarov has claimed responsibility for last year's bombing in a Moscow airport that killed 35 people. The ailing Chechen separatist is widely seen as the nominal leader of fractured groups of Islamists and separatists in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a war in the early 1990s — and one of the warlords who helped drive out Georgian forces was Shamil Basayev, who later led Chechen separatists and was dubbed Russia's most wanted terrorist.
Although Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 2008 and received large amounts of support from Russia, it remains roiled by political unrest and filled with weapons and ammunition left over from the war. In February, Abkhazia's leader, Alexander Ankvab, barely survived a sixth assassination attempt — apparently organized by a former interior minister who shot himself in mid-April after security officers came to arrest him.
"Abkhazia is pretty much like Uganda," says Yulia Latynina, who has written several books on the Caucasus. "I don't doubt that certain Chechen (militants) stayed there and feel completely at home."
Militants could have easily stashed weapons and ammunition there, but not necessarily for attacks on Sochi, as the Russian anti-terrorism officials alleged, she said.
"Our (Russian) security forces like to declare that each gun found on a militant was aimed at Vladimir Putin," Latynina told The Associated Press.
Akhmet Yarlykapov of the Moscow-based Ethnology and Anthropology Institute said he doubted that Georgia was involved with Chechen militants.
Georgian authorities "can hardly side with separatists and organize diversions," Yarlykapov told AP.
Shota Khizanishvili, the chief of staff at Georgia's Interior Ministry, denied any links between Georgia and Umarov.
"I can only say that the National Anti-Terrorist Committee is staffed with people with peculiar fantasies," Khizanishvili told the AP. "They're always trying to accuse Georgia and its secret services of everything in any situation and without any grounds. This is a sign of severe paranoia."
Georgia and Russia fought a brief but intense war in 2008, and distrust between the two countries still runs very high. Georgia has accused Russia of spying on its government and supporting a failed coup to topple pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili and has urged the world to boycott the Sochi Olympics.
Sochi's selection as the host of the games had sparked fears of terrorism, although Russia pledged to keep the Olympics secure.
The International Olympic Committee would not comment on the specific security case at Sochi but said in a statement that "security is a top priority for the IOC.
"Security at the games is the responsibility of the local authorities, and we have no doubt that the Russians will be up to the task," the statement said.
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, and sports writer Stephen Wilson in London contributed to this report.