Brussels, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today said that his government is discussing with Russia and consulting with the U.S. prospects for returning Chechen refugees to their war-torn republic. Shevardnadze spoke in Brussels after meeting EU security policy coordinator Javier Solana. The Georgian president said discussions touched on the situation in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, where the U.S. has said that suspected Al-Qaeda fighters may have found shelter.
"As concerns U.S. participation, then the United States does not participate that actively in this process," Shevardnadze said. "But with regard to Russia, we have ongoing negotiations with the Russian leadership, we have agreed with President [Vladimir] Putin that we will set up a special committee -- or committees -- which will help the [refugees] return to their countries, and are responsible financially and materially for creating the security conditions necessary for this."
Shevardnadze said the refugees were mostly women, children, and elderly men, although there were some who "probably" had participated in battles against Russian forces. He added that the refugees constitute "no particular problem" for Georgia at this point and that he is optimistic the situation will be resolved peacefully.
After a meeting with Shevardnadze later in the day, NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson said NATO has offered Georgia help in reforming its armed forces.
Robertson said after talks in Brussels that the status of the Caucasus country's military is especially important due to the international fight against terrorism.
"The best way for Georgia to deal with the problem of terrorism is to have the capabilities, to have the armed forces that will be able to tackle the problems that affect the country from inside and outside," Robertson said.
The NATO chief said Georgia is a "crucial" country in the region and its territorial integrity is very important to NATO.
Shevardnadze said 200 U.S. military instructors due to arrive shortly in Georgia will not participate in military operations against suspected terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge or elsewhere in the country. He said they will help Georgia to carry out its military reforms and train local antiterrorist troops.