Prague, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Southern Caucasus state of Georgia yesterday accused Russian combat helicopters and airplanes of bombing its northeastern border area on the night of 27 November to destroy groups of Chechen separatist fighters believed to be hiding there.
Georgian authorities said the overnight strikes took place in the Pankisi gorge, some 200 kilometers northeast of the capital Tbilisi.
Speaking on national television hours after the attack was first reported, Georgian Security Minister Valeri Khaburzaniya said that no one was hurt in the raids, but that some 75 families fled their homes in panic. Other reports claim that two people died in the attacks.
Moscow denied the charge that it was behind the bombing. In remarks reported yesterday by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, Defense Ministry spokesman Nikolai Deryabin acknowledged that Russian military aircraft did attack two groups of armed rebels who were attempting to cross the border, but he denied that any violation of Georgia's airspace had taken place.
Speaking to journalists today, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov gave an even more awkward refutation to Georgia's accusations: "For those who don't know, I will say that helicopters do not fly at night, especially over difficult mountainous terrain." Ivanov also said that, shortly before the incident, Russian soldiers stationed in the region recorded armed clashes between Chechen rebels and alleged Arab mercenaries involved in drugs trafficking.
Russia's denials have failed to satisfy Georgian officials. Speaking yesterday in Tbilisi, Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili said that, to his view, the timing of the incident might not be accidental: "We are greatly concerned by the fact that this obviously provocative action was carried out on the eve of a CIS summit and of a meeting between the presidents of Russia and Georgia. We cannot rule out that this was an attempt to curtail the possible positive consequences of this meeting."
A regular summit of all 12 CIS heads of state is due to open tomorrow in Moscow. The presidents of Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan will hold separate talks to discuss security issues within the framework of the so-called "Caucasus Four" regional forum.
Russia's ORT state television channel reported today that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is also expected to meet separately with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Besides the recent border incident, which ORT says will be on top of the agenda, both presidents will have a wide choice of topics for discussion.
Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia of harboring Chechen fighters in the Pankisi gorge, a volatile area that is largely controlled by drugs and arms smugglers. Tbilisi had consistently denied the claims.
Over the past few months, the Pankisi gorge region has also been used as a base of operations for criminal gangs responsible for the kidnappings of many Georgian and foreign individuals. The Pankisi gorge, which is already home to thousands of ethnic Chechens, has seen a influx of refugees from neighboring Chechnya since the war first broke out with Russia in 1994.
In December 2000, the Kremlin introduced a visa requirement for most Georgian citizens traveling to Russia, justifying the measure by saying it was taken to prevent Chechen fighters from crossing the Russian-Georgian border.
The Pankisi gorge is not the only bone of contention between the two countries. Georgia accuses Russia of supporting separatists in its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian planes reportedly violated Georgia's airspace two months ago to bomb alleged Chechen and Georgian guerrillas hiding in Abkhazia's Kodori gorge.
Tbilisi also says Moscow is not complying with a 1999 commitment to pull out from four military bases located on Georgian soil. Russia has already evacuated the Vaziani airfield near Tbilisi. But it says it is unable to pull all its troops out of the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia because of security concerns raised by the local population which fears that Georgia might be tempted to retake the region by force.
The fate of two other bases -- in Akhalkalaki and Batumi -- has not yet been decided.
Georgia also blames Russia for refusing to sign a new friendship pact it says should help normalize bilateral relations. An earlier treaty signed seven years ago has never been ratified by the Russian parliament.
Shevardnadze arrived in Moscow earlier today ahead of the CIS summit. It looks like the Georgian leader will have a major card in hand when he meets with Putin tomorrow. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday voiced his country's concerns over the recent air strikes, saying such military incursions were a potential threat to regional stability.
The Reuters news agency cites Boucher as saying: "We have some confirmation that there were helicopters that entered Georgian airspace from Russian territory [and] subsequently attacked areas on the Georgian side of the border."
Although Boucher did not specifically blame Russia for the raids, he said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell would raise the issue when he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in early December or before.
Georgia is part of a multimillion-dollar regional pipeline project involving major U.S. oil major companies, and Washington considers Shevardnadze one of its strongest allies in the former Soviet Union.
How far the White House will be ready to go to defend Georgia's interests against Russia's alleged pressures is unclear. But the 27 November border incident is unlikely to seriously affect the recent blossoming of U.S.-Russian relations prompted by the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)