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Caucasus: OSCE Considering Extending Monitoring Of Chechen Border

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is considering whether to prolong its monitoring of the border between Chechnya and Georgia and possibly expand it to include Georgia's borders with Ingushetia and Daghestan. The idea comes from Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and was discussed by the current OSCE chairman, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, during a visit to Tblisi a few days ago.

Munich, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- OSCE monitors were sent to the Georgian-Chechen border in December 1999 at a time when tensions were rising between Russia and Georgia.

Russia suspected Chechen guerrillas had established centers in Georgia and were slipping back and forth across the mountains. Georgia was concerned that Russian arms might be entering the country for pro-Russian forces there.

After a visit to Tblisi last week, OSCE chairman Mircea Geoana said he thought the operation had been a success. The daily helicopter patrols through the mountains and others by road and on foot have apparently stopped the illegal border crossings. OSCE says that not a single individual or group has been caught since the patrols began.

"This was a new task which the international community asked the OSCE to perform on its behalf and we are very proud to say that, together with the border forces here, we have done an excellent job."

A senior OSCE official in Georgia who did not wish to be identified said the monitors inhibited hostile operations along the mountainous frontier. The official said that OSCE monitors have had a dampening effect on such operations. He says the monitors act to defuse tensions before they erupt into conflict.

The mandate for the OSCE force on the Chechnya border expires next month. Geoana is fairly confident it will be prolonged until mid-November. But Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has now asked the OSCE to take on the more difficult task of patrolling Georgia's mountain borders with Ingushetia and Daghestan, where there are frequent illegal border crossings.

Geoana told journalists such a mandate would need Russian approval, which might not be easily obtained. Under OSCE regulations, such a project requires the consensus of all member governments, including Russia. Geoana said he believed approval would eventually be given for the mission but it could take some weeks. He declined to discuss what factors might be included in an agreement.

"There is an ongoing debate within the OSCE. There are a couple of different ideas, but I do believe that we will be able to find a flexible solution which, on the one side, will make sure that we are not overstretched as an organization and not go into a situation where we are not able to guarantee success. At the same time, we should try to take into account the legitimate national security concerns of the Georgian side and also of the Russian side. That's why we are trying to find a compromise within the organization."

Officials at OSCE headquarters in Vienna say Russia might agree because it frequently complains of infiltrators from Daghestan. Earlier this week Russia announced it had captured eight Chechen fighters crossing between Daghestan and Chechnya.

The director of the Federal Border Service, Konstantin Totskii, said in Moscow that Russia planned to increase the number of its own border guards deployed along the Chechen side of the frontier. He suggested that Russia might also increase the number of border posts.

Geoana said that cost would be one of the factors which would have to be considered in deciding whether to extend the monitoring mission. Some officials suggest that patrolling the Daghestan border would require more monitors than those on the Chechnya border, while fewer would be required on the border with Ingushetia.

The present OSCE monitoring mission in Georgia consists of three posts along the 80 km-long border with Chechnya.

The main post is at Shatili, a village of about 12 buildings surrounded by high mountains. OSCE patrol officers say that in winter, temperatures can sink to minus 30 degrees Celsius and in summer there are often torrential rains. Shatili is where the Argun Valley crosses into Georgia. The road through the valley can be used by trucks.

The other two posts are at Omalo and at Girevi, which is closed in winter because of the extreme weather conditions. In summer, the OSCE posts about 65 monitors along the border but in winter the number sinks to about 45. The monitors are drawn from 27 countries.

The main monitoring is done by a helicopter which swoops up and down the mountain passes or with four-wheel drive vehicles along the mountain tracks. Twice a week, the OSCE sends foot patrols into the mountains for a closer look. In summer they use mountain equipment and in winter they patrol on skis.

The OSCE monitors are unarmed but are escorted by armed Georgian border guards. The monitors have no power to detain anyone and anyone sighted would be held by the Georgian guards accompanying them.

Geoana described the OSCE operation as a contribution to what he called the "legitimate security interests of Georgia."

Government figures show that Georgia is host to about 7,500 Chechen refugees, many of them children, women, or old people. The majority have been given accommodation with families in the Pankisi Valley, which is settled by Kists -- Georgians of Chechen descent. But Georgia's refugee ministry says many are believed to have moved on and it is planning a new registration of refugees to confirm their real numbers.