Moscow, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During a visit to Moscow yesterday, U.S. General Tommy Franks, commander of American military operations in Afghanistan, praised Russia for its cooperation in the U.S.-led antiterrorist campaign in the country.
Speaking with reporters in Moscow, Franks said he appreciates the help Russia is providing to the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan. In particular, Franks mentioned the work the Emergencies Ministry -- which is coordinating Russia's relief operations in Afghanistan -- has accomplished in the worn-torn country.
Franks said Russia is an important part of the antiterrorism coalition: "In my meetings here in Moscow up to this point, I've been very much impressed with the fact that the Russian government remains a vital part of this coalition. And I think we all agree that we don't know how long the operation will continue."
Franks said Russia has helped in Afghanistan by, among other things, setting up a hospital, clearing a major tunnel and by granting prompt clearance for U.S. planes to fly over Russian territory. He said Russia also has liaison officers in the Florida headquarters of the U.S. Central Command.
Franks was asked whether Russia's assistance will go beyond the humanitarian variety: "Russia has provided humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. That sort of coordination cooperation will continue. And I don't really think I'd go beyond what I really know in terms of speculating about what may happen in the future. Russia is very much a partner of this coalition, and we have discussions every day."
Franks arrived in Moscow for a three-day visit on 19 March for talks with top officials. After meeting with Franks yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russian-U.S. cooperation in fighting terrorism "creates good conditions for opposing new threats and challenges not only in Afghanistan but also in other countries."
Franks told reporters that some Chechens are among the detainees of the antiterrorism campaign, but he did not say how many: "I think the number of nationalities represented in the detainee population that we have now between our Kandahar detention facility in Afghanistan and Guantanamo [Bay in Cuba] is about 35. And to be sure, the Chechnya nationality is represented among those 35 nations. And so I'm really not in the position to discuss the political level, but as I said, I do see this variety of nationalities represented in terrorist networks that we associate with Al-Qaeda. [But] these terrorist organizations and terrorism knows no religion, and it knows no nationality."
Some commentators in the Russian media see Frank's mission as an attempt by the U.S. to reassure Russia about the presence of coalition troops in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. But Franks said the U.S. is not competing with Russia in the region. He said he hopes Russia will continue to develop security ties with these states.
Franks said the Pentagon is concerned about the security situation in the Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia, but he said no firm date has been fixed when U.S. special forces will arrive to train Georgian troops to fight terrorists believed to be hiding in the area.
Franks did not say whether he discussed with Russians defense officials a potential U.S. operation against Iraq, which Washington accuses of being part of an "axis of evil" and developing weapons of mass destruction. Russia has significant trade ties with Baghdad and has expressed concern about the wisdom of such an attack.