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Georgia hopes to talk Chechens back to Russia

: Artyom Vernidoub  

Georgia has eventually launched an anti-criminal operation in the lawless territory of the Pankisi. On Sunday Georgias Interior Ministry forces marched into the gorge. However, in defiance of Moscows protests, Georgia apparently has no intention of conducting a large-scale military campaign in what Russia believes to be a stronghold of Chechen guerillas and their accomplices.

This is not our problem, the National Security Minister of Georgia Valery Khaburdzania said in response to Moscows angry statement whereby it upbraided the Georgian authorities tactics of peacefully squeezing guerillas from the Pankisi back to Chechnya.

In the meantime, the Untied States sharply rebuked Russia over aerial bombings of Georgias border territories in which one civilian was killed and seven more were wounded. Russia, nonetheless, continues to deny any such raid had taken place.

For the first time since the beginning of the crisis in the relationship between Georgia and Russia the US administration issued a statement upbraiding Moscow tactics.

The White House spokesman Ari Fleischer officially accused Russian leadership of air raids on Georgia.

The attacks and their denial by the Russian government escalate existing tensions between Russia and Georgia, Fleischer said. "In this context, we call again urgently for a political settlement to the conflict in Chechnya, which would contribute to stability in both Russia and Georgia, and advance our efforts to fight terrorism and establish peace in the Caucasus," he said.

On Sunday Georgia sent hundreds of Interior Ministry troops to Pankisi in the framework of the large-scale operation aimed to establish police control over the lawless gorge. Several hundreds troops marched into the five Pankisi villages, inhabited by local Chechens and refugees from the Chechen Republic, and proceeded to setting up checkpoints.

Hitherto, there have been no checkpoints within the gorge, and policemen at checkpoints located along the perimeter of Pankisi preferred not to interfere in anything.

Tbilisi refers to the operation launched in the gorge as anti-criminal, saying it is aimed at bringing order to Pankisi, cleansing the area of criminals and terrorists should they be there. This is not exactly the wording that Moscow would find satisfactory.

Russia has long insisted on a full-scale counter-terror campaign saying that all terrorists must be apprehended, disarmed and handed over to Russian law enforcers, and insistently offered its help in conducting the operation.

In a parallel operation on Sunday Georgian army began the military exercises dubbed Kakheti-2002 in the Akhmeta district not far from the southern edge of the gorge. Georgia said the exercises, too, were anti-terrorist. Tbilisi said that in line with the Defence Ministrys plans the army is not expected to take part in the Pankisi operation, yet, if the Interior Ministrys forces encounter difficulties in dealing with the Chechens, extra help will come from the army.

Still, according to Russian security services estimates, Georgian troops are scarcely capable of tackling the Pankisi problem on their own. According to Russias estimates, the gorge currently serves as a stronghold to not less than 3000 rebels, whereas the number of troops deployed in the Kakheti-2002 exercises does not exceed 1500 thousand. And even though those include US-trained commandos, and the army uses the US-made military aircraft, it appears that Georgia nonetheless is not strong enough to subdue the rebels should they offer violent resistance.

The operation in the Pankisi Gorge is headed personally by the young Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili. Even as he declared the operation launched the minister rushed to reassure the inhabitants of the gorge that there would be no so-called cleanups, or sweeps in the likeness of those regularly held by Russian troops in Chechnya.

Georgia claims that Pankisi residents themselves, including Chechen refugees, who have found asylum there, urged the authorities to bring order to the gorge. That sounds credible since the Pankisi Chechen fear that Russia may attempt the armed incursion.

Having enlisted support of the local population, the Georgian power ministries are set to stake not on round-up operations but on existing intelligence information provided by the locals who are perfectly aware of the whereabouts of drug dealers and weapon traders. Furthermore, Georgia troops hope to find and liberate from guerrilla captivity two foreign nationals a Briton and a German kidnapped earlier this summer.

As regards to the Chechen rebels, Georgian authorities do not hope they will find any in the gorge. Last week there were unconfirmed reports saying that a large group of rebels allegedly headed by the notorious Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev had left the gorge and entered the neighbouring Itlo Gorge, where it was spotted by local shepherds. Georgian Rustavi-2 television network ran the footage showing deserted camping sites. Furthermore, Pankisi residents have confirmed that bearded men armed with assault rifles have long left the area.

Thus, it appears that the Chechen rebels have hearkened to the words of the Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who on Friday urged them to leave for the sake of safety of women, and children, and to go back to Chechnya. Some in Moscow may as well interpret Shevardnadzes appeal as a warning to the rebels. But it is hardly so. For Shevardnadze urged Chechen men to leave Pankisi in the wake of new air attacks on the gorge.

Official Tbilisi, it appears, sees nothing bad in the tactics of squeezing Chechen insurgents back to Chechnya. As the Minister for National Security of Georgia Valery Khaburdzania, who arrived in the gorge to oversee maneuvers, said, squeezing them out is one of the goals of the anti-criminal operation

Peaceful squeezing of the rebels out from the Georgian territory is not welcomed in the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but then Georgia does not welcome squeezing rebels from Russian into its territory by force, either, he said. Any state acts in the interests of its people and therefore the taken measures are quite justified. To secure its borders and sovereignty Russia must take adequate measures, and that is not our problem.

26 15:30


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