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Georgian Defends Locals' Motives For Joining Syria Fight

  • RFE/RL's Georgian Service

A resident of Georgia's restive Pankisi Gorge has told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that he knows one of his countrymen accused this week by the United States of aiding extremist groups like Islamic State (IS) in Syria and defended natives of his poverty-stricken area who go there "to help the poor Syrian people."

Pankisi Gorge has become home to many Chechens fleeing fighting across the northeast Georgian region's border with southern Russia and has been described in the past as a transit route for Caucasus rebels and Islamist militants.

In an on-camera interview with his identity protected (above), the man questioned the inclusion of one of the Georgians on the U.S. extremist list, Murad Margoshvili (aka Muslim Abu Walid Shishani), although he did not claim to have intimate knowledge of Margoshvili's activities in Syria.

The man, who met with RFE/RL in Duisi, said he personally knew "at most 10" other locals who had gone to join the fighting in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's regime is battling a three-year insurgency.

He said "two or three" of the locals that were said to have gone to Syria "are dead now."

The man claimed he "used to attend a mosque" with Margoshvili, whom he described as "a decent man."

"Everyone was surprised to learn that [Margoshvili] was added...because...he had no radical leanings," the man said. "He went to help the people of Syria fight against the tyrant Bashar al-Assad."

The State Department alleges that Margoshvili "is a well-known Chechen leader in Syria who built a terrorist training base there near the Turkish border, where newly arrived foreign fighters received combat training. He is also the leader of Junud al-Sham, a militant group that fights alongside other extremist groups in Syria."

The United States is leading an international coalition of dozens of countries that have pledged military help to defeat the IS militants, who control swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and have committed mass killings of locals -- including many women and children -- and beheaded foreign journalists and an aid worker in warnings to Western governments.

On September 24, the U.S. government released two lists of individuals it accuses of working with extremist organizations in Syria such as IS.

The list by the Treasury Department included Georgian citizen Tarkhan Batirashvili (aka Omar al-Shishani), while the State Department's list included Margoshvili.

Both are ethnic Chechens from Duisi, near the border with Russia and Chechnya. Another man from that area was recently killed in Syria, according to the Georgian Embassy in Egypt.

At least six men from Pankisi Gorge have died in Syria since the conflict there erupted, according to "Democracy & Freedom Watch," a nongovernmental group supported in part by Open Society.