Russian forces yesterday fought a major battle with Chechen fighters in the southern republic of Ingushetia. The violence, which apparently claimed many lives, contradicts assurances by Kremlin officials that the situation in Russia's south is under control. But, more important, it has revived the dispute between Russia and Georgia over Chechen training camps allegedly located in Georgia.
Prague, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Fresh violence in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia has rekindled Moscow's anger toward Tbilisi over alleged support offered by Georgian authorities to Chechen separatists.
Yesterday, a fierce battle was fought between forces of the Russian 58th Army and a group of 150 to 300 Chechen and foreign fighters attempting to break through the village of Galashki, in eastern Ingushetia, and cross the administrative border with Chechnya.
Estimates for the number of casualties differ greatly. Moscow says the clashes -- the heaviest reported in Ingushetia since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994 -- claimed the lives of seven to 14 Russian soldiers and of up to 80 armed separatists.
In remarks posted today on the pro-independence Kavkaz-Center informational website, the Chechen leadership says Russian losses amount to more than 50 killed and 90 wounded. It also says a total of 13 separatist fighters were killed or are reported missing.
The Russian military command said today it has asserted full control over Galashki and that troops are searching for small groups of fighters attempting to reach nearby Chechnya through mountain paths. However, the reported use of field artillery and combat helicopters suggests that wide-scale military operations are not over yet.
The Kremlin claims the intruders entered Ingushetia from neighboring Northern Ossetia, another southern Russian republic, where they had clashed earlier this week with federal troops stationed there.
Russia also says the fighters -- reportedly led by Abdulmalik, a lieutenant of field commander Ruslan Gelaev -- were previously based in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area in Georgia that borders Chechnya to the south. Russian media today quoted fighters captured in Galashki as saying they had been trained in guerrilla warfare in Pankisi.
Speaking yesterday to journalists near the combat zone in Galashki, 58th Army commander General Valerii Gerasimov said the armed group, which included a man believed to be a British reporter who Russia says was killed during the battle, mostly comprised foreign mercenaries who had infiltrated the Russian Federation from the south. "We know with certainty that the core of this armed group was made of Arabs. Among them was a British citizen -- a reporter who was carrying a video camera and a camera with him -- and the representative of the so-called Republic of Ichkeria [the name used by the separatist leadership to designate Chechnya]. This outfit came from Georgia with the aim of joining forces with other groups and conducting acts of sabotage and terrorism on the territory of the republic of Chechnya," Gerasimov said.
Yesterday, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted unidentified security officials in Moscow as saying that the separatist fighters had been flown to Northern Ossetia about two weeks ago aboard Georgian military helicopters.
In apparent contradiction with the ITAR-TASS report, Gerasimov said a Georgian smuggler helped the fighters cross the border by land in return for a substantial sum of money.
How such a large group of armed fighters, or even a couple of Georgian helicopters, could have entered Northern Ossetia without being spotted by Russian troops remains unclear.
Tbilisi has not officially reacted to these accusations, but security officials in the Georgian capital told Russia's Interfax news agency that the separatists could not have possibly crossed the border without the complicity of Russian border guards.
Moscow has long accused Georgia of harboring armed separatists and allowing them to use Pankisi as a base of operations for armed forays against its troops in Chechnya. Tbilisi has persistently denied colluding with Chechen fighters, accusing Russia in turn of purposely driving fighters across the border.
On 25 August, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ordered a police operation to restore law and order in Pankisi and to cleanse the area of all smugglers and armed separatists located there. The security sweep resulted in the arrest of a handful of wanted criminals and suspected fighters whose connections with the Chechen separatist leadership remain unclear.
Georgia has also turned down repeated Russian offers to conduct a joint crackdown in Pankisi, fearing the presence of a large number of federal troops in the area might stir trouble in its Moscow-backed separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Despite Shevardnadze's recent claims that Russian security officials are present in Pankisi, Moscow says the operation is a complete failure. On 11 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to order bombing raids on alleged Pankisi-based Chechen training camps if Georgian authorities fail to flush separatists out of the area.
Speaking yesterday in Warsaw, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said fresh violence in Ingushetia might prove the last straw, and he warned that Moscow's patience is close to exhaustion. He also made it clear the Galashki incident might prompt Russia to launch preemptive strikes on Pankisi.
Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying Moscow would "take all necessary steps to fight those armed groups that have already crossed the [Georgian-Russian] border, or plan to do so."
Commenting on the ongoing fighting in Ingushetia, Gennadii Seleznev, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, said yesterday that this is additional evidence that Moscow is right in demanding joint military action. "It will be interesting to hear what Eduard Ambrosievich Shevardnadze will have to say. Will he now continue to claim that there are no bandits in his country? What has he to answer to that? I have been long saying that we, Georgians and Russians, should catch [these Chechen fighters] in a pincer movement. Those who surrender should be taken prisoner, and those who do not surrender should be simply eliminated physically. This leisure life of theirs in Georgia should be brought to an end," Seleznev said.
Among other grievances, Russia blames Shevardnadze for allegedly tipping off Chechen fighters about the Pankisi operation. Moscow says this early warning allowed armed separatists to leave the area in complete peace and move to other parts of Georgia from where they were able to infiltrate Russian territory.
Georgian Deputy Security Minister Lasha Natsvlishvili yesterday further angered the Kremlin by saying that now that government troops had succeeded in driving Pankisi-based armed fighters out of the country, Tbilisi was washing its hands of the matter. "We are purposefully getting rid of these guests, of these unwanted armed guests who have come from Russia. If they have crossed the Russian-Georgian border, how to deal with that problem is, of course, first of all the concern of the Russian Federation," Natsvlishvili said.
These remarks did not go unnoticed in the Russian capital, where Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said they demonstrated either the Georgian government's "helplessness" or its "cynicism."
Addressing parliamentarians today in Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili said support from the international community -- in particular from the United States, which is currently training Georgian armed forces in the antiterrorism fight -- has helped his country avert what he called Russian "aggression."
Georgia's top diplomat warned, however, that this respite might be short-lived.