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Georgia: Situation In Pankisi Gorge Raises Tension, Speculation

Enjoined by the international community to restore order in a troubled northern area that reportedly harbors terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze recently hinted that he may turn to the United States for help. And he categorically dismissed Moscow's claims that a joint Russian-Georgian operation is already in the pipeline.

Prague, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is facing growing pressure from both Russia and the United States to reassert control over a crime-ridden region where armed militants allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network are said to be hiding.

Located 150 kilometers northeast of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, the Pankisi Gorge has a reputation for lawlessness that openly challenges the prestige of the central government.

Bordering Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya to the south, the Pankisi Gorge is three kilometers wide and 30 kilometers long. The area has been home, since the beginning of the first Chechen conflict in the mid-1990s, to criminal gangs specializing in weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, and kidnapping. Reports that these gangs operate in conjunction with corrupt politicians or foreign intelligence services have not been confirmed.

Since the Kremlin launched its second Chechen campaign three years ago, some 15,000 Chechen civilians have sought refuge in Pankisi -- some temporarily, others permanently. An estimated 6,000 refugees are still believed to remain in the region.

The Pankisi Gorge has been a major bone of contention between Georgia and Russia, which has maintained that hundreds of Chechen fighters were hiding among the refugees and using the area as a base of operations.

Georgia dismissed Moscow's claims until last fall, when Shevardnadze hinted at the possible presence of Chechen commander Ruslan Gelayev in Pankisi. The United States, which considers Tbilisi its main ally in the South Caucasus region, has long shrugged off charges brought by Russia against Georgia.

A few days ago, however, the situation took a new twist when a Georgian security official and a top U.S. diplomat made successive comments that appeared to sustain Moscow's claims.

Addressing a cabinet meeting on 9 February, Georgian Security Minister Valeri Khaburzaniya stated that an unspecified number of Jordanian and Saudi citizens allegedly planning attacks in Russia had been apprehended in the Pankisi Gorge.

In an interview published two days later, on 11 February in the Georgian "Akhali Versia" ("New Version") weekly, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, said a few dozen fighters from Afghanistan had recently appeared in Pankisi and were in contact with an Arab warlord of Jordan or Saudi descent known as Khattab.

Remler added that Khattab -- Russia's most-wanted Chechen commander -- in turn had contacts with bin Laden. His remarks seemed to confirm Russia's claims that Khattab had trained with bin Laden -- himself a Saudi-born dissident -- in the early 1990s in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What prompted Washington to air comments that, at first glance, sounded like a criticism of Shevardnadze's government is unclear and has raised much speculation.

Be that as it may, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov soon outdid Remler, hinting on 15 February during a visit to Paris that bin Laden himself might be hiding in the Akhmeta administrative district that includes the Pankisi Gorge.

In comments broadcast on 18 February on Georgian state television, Security Minister Khaburzaniya brushed off Russia's new accusations: "I can state that, according to our intelligence information, bin Laden is not in the Pankisi Gorge. As for the rest, things will be clearer as the situation develops further. One can make every kind of allegations, including saying that the number one terrorist is hiding in Pankisi. Our services are working on ways to neutralize this kind of information."

Addressing reporters at his weekly press briefing on 18 February, Shevardnadze sarcastically responded to Ivanov's comments, saying the prime suspect behind the 11 September attacks might be hiding in a place Ivanov would not dare think of: "I was very much surprised by [Ivanov's] remarks that bin Laden might be somewhere in the Akhmeta administrative district. I explain these remarks by the fact that Ivanov's mother is herself from [the city of] Akhmeta. Her house is still there, and maybe [bin Laden] is hiding in it? He might well be hiding there. We will check this out. We would not like to search the house of the foreign minister of Russia, but we will have to do it anyway."

In mid-January, yielding to both international and domestic pressures, Georgian authorities launched a special police operation to reassert control over the Pankisi area. The decision followed a series of protests organized by members of Georgia's Union of Afghan War Veterans, who had threatened to restore law and order in Pankisi themselves if the government failed to do so. In particular, the protesters were demanding the release of a Georgian Orthodox monk who had been abducted in the region a few months before.

Besides the alleged terrorists mentioned by Khaburzaniya, law-enforcement agencies say the police crackdown also secured the arrest of less than a dozen drug traffickers out of the 46 criminals officially wanted by the Georgian authorities. Yet, they have so far produced no evidence to sustain their claims.

The efficiency of the police crackdown was seriously challenged on 17 February, when four Georgian policemen were abducted near the village of Duisi, minutes after law-enforcement agencies had apprehended a local drug smuggler. The hostages were released yesterday after talks between the kidnappers, local elders, and police.

Meanwhile, Moscow is stepping up pressure on Georgia, urging local authorities to take decisive steps to clean up the Pankisi Gorge from what it describes as "bandits" and "terrorists" -- generic terms used by Russian officials to designate Chechen fighters.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov yesterday said the Pankisi area is turning into what he described as a "mini-Afghanistan": "If policemen who are being sent to the area to reassert [Georgia's] control -- or so they say -- are being abducted, it only shows that we were right, that the situation there is really worsening and that [the region] is now resembling what Chechnya used to be in the past or what Afghanistan was, only on a smaller geographical scale."

Russian troops entered Chechnya for the first time in 1994, officially to "restore constitutional order" in the separatist republic. After the U.S. decided to strike Al-Qaeda and the Taliban Islamic militia in the wake of the September attacks, the Kremlin started likening Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge to Afghanistan in a bid to gain international support for its own military campaign.

But these efforts have so far remained largely unheeded, and Russia is now trying to promote the idea that Georgia, which it stills regards as part of its sphere of influence, is unable to cope with its own domestic problems and needs Moscow's military assistance.

On 18 February, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov told reporters that Moscow and Tbilisi are pondering a possible joint "antiterrorist operation" in Pankisi. Ivanov said consultations to that effect are already underway and will intensify in the near future.

Analysts generally believe that any large-scale Russian military operation in Pankisi would be detrimental to Shevardnadze.

Georgian officials bluntly denied Ivanov's hints at a possible joint operation. But they said they would welcome any information or technical assistance from friendly countries to help them conduct the Pankisi crackdown, which they insist should be considered as a mere police operation.

On 18 February, Shevardnadze added to the general confusion, saying that, should it become necessary, Georgia will be "ready for dialogue" with Washington over possible joint action involving U.S. special forces. But he said there had been "no systematic talks" on that issue so far.

Shevardnadze also described as "unacceptable" any joint operation with Russia, thus denying comments made earlier in the month by Nugzar Sadzhaya, the secretary of Georgia's Security Council.

In a report published on 14 February, the Texas-based Strategic Forecasting intelligence consulting firm, also known as Stratfor, said Washington's claims that Al-Qaeda fighters have been spotted in Pankisi might give the U.S. a rationale to deploy troops in Georgia -- a development the company describes as "Moscow's nightmare scenario." Georgian media have already started speculating that the U.S. could use the Vaziani air base, near Tbilisi, which the Russians vacated in 2001.

Commenting on the latest statements made by both U.S. and Georgian officials, the Russian Army's "Krasnaya Zvezda" ("Red Star") newspaper said on 15 February: "The U.S. has achieved some success in preparing the public opinion to the idea that, should it take a decision in that direction, its future military presence in Georgia is justified."

Although most analysts believe that the U.S. is unlikely to send troops to Georgia, lest it lead to a confrontation with Russia or with Chechen separatists, they say Washington could nevertheless cite the presence of suspected terrorists in the area to enhance military ties with its Southern Caucasus ally.

In his remarks to "Akhali Versia," American envoy Remler described the Pankisi Gorge as a threat to Georgia and said Washington will help any country combat Al-Qaeda. He added that the U.S. is considering helping the Georgian Defense Ministry set up antiterrorist forces.

Talking to reporters yesterday upon his return from the U.S., Georgia's opposition leader and former justice minister, Mikhail Saakashvili, said Tbilisi should ask for international help to cope with the Pankisi issue.

Media reports quoted Saakashvili as saying that the talks in Washington earlier with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had convinced him that the U.S. administration will not leave Georgia to face this problem alone and that "Russia is not the only player in the Caucasus."