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Caucasus: Chechens See No Threat In U.S.-Georgia Antiterror Drive

While the United States is preparing to dispatch up to 200 military advisers to Georgia, officially to train local armed forces to combat terrorism, there is still uncertainty over the real motives behind the decision. Despite Tbilisi's claims that the U.S. military personnel will not be involved in military operations, Russia has apparently not given up hope that the presence of American troops might bolster its war in the neighboring republic of Chechnya. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch discusses Washington's initiative in the context of the U.S.-Russian relationship with Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of the Chechen separatist leadership.

Prague, 5 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The late-February announcement that the United States will send advisers and equipment to help the Georgian army combat terrorism has raised speculation that the move might harm the leadership of Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"The Americans are preparing to launch a military operation against the Chechens. Without us," wrote "Rossiiskaya Gazeta," the Russian government's official newspaper, on 1 March.

Since Russia's second Chechen military campaign started more than two years ago, the Kremlin has claimed that thousands of armed separatists are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area in Georgia that borders Chechnya to the south. Moscow has insisted Tbilisi take steps to evict them. Only last fall did Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze first admit that several dozen Chechen fighters might be using Pankisi as a rear base.

On 11 February, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, told a Georgian weekly that Washington has information showing that a few dozen Al-Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan have sought refuge in Pankisi and are in contact with an Arab-born Chechen commander known as Khattab.

News that the U.S. has apparently decided to bring its global antiterror war to the Caucasus sparked an initial wave of public outcry in Moscow. But Russian President Vladimir Putin later said he sees "no tragedy" in a U.S. military presence.

Putin's remark could indicate Moscow has decided to make the best of it in the hope the U.S. will help contain the Chechen resistance. As Russian political expert Vyacheslav Nikonov wrote recently in the Moscow-based "Trud" daily: "Our claims that Chechnya and Georgia are home to nests of international terrorists -- including to Al-Qaeda fighters -- are being fully vindicated. The elimination of the Pankisi-based [terrorist] nest will help us reach a final victory in Chechnya. And nobody in the West will have any reason now to criticize us for that."

However, the Chechen leadership also sees the U.S. deployment in Georgia as a good thing.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, the foreign minister of the Chechen separatist leadership, Ilyas Akhmadov, said he welcomes the U.S. decision, calling it a "stabilizing factor for the region." Although he does not rule out that some Al-Qaeda militants might have appeared in Pankisi in recent weeks, Akhmadov believes Washington will now be in a better position to see that there are no organized links between Chechnya's independence fighters and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

"Once there, the Americans will see what these 'terrorist bases' Russia keeps talking about really are. They will see that [we have] no links with Al-Qaeda. They will be able to see for themselves what the real situation is," Akhmadov said. "Up until now, unfortunately, [the U.S. perception] was mostly based on information provided by the Russian secret services. The presence of U.S. troops will also prevent Russia from bombing the [Pankisi] area and destabilizing the situation there with complete impunity. The situation there is dangerous enough without that."

Akhmadov was referring to a border incident that occurred in November, when unidentified warplanes bombed Pankisi. Tbilisi claims the aircraft were Russian and violated Georgia's airspace -- a charge Moscow denies. The incident elicited strong criticism from Washington.

Most Western analysts generally agree that one of Washington's aims in sending military personnel to Georgia is to try to defuse a confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi. They say the U.S. is deeply interested in the security of the Caucasus region, both to protect its regional oil projects and to secure a safe supply route to its new military bases in Central Asia.

Shevardnadze seemed to sustain these views, saying the arrival of U.S. advisers is part of a long-standing plan to strengthen Tbilisi's independence and territorial integrity.

Akhmadov also appeared to cast the move in broad geopolitical terms. Asked what he believes the main U.S. objective is, he said: "The situation in the region is explosive, and this goes back a long way. It goes back to 1992, and it concerns not only the Transcaucasus region [Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan] but also the entire Caucasus. I think the Americans have finally decided what their policy regarding the Caucasus should be and have started implementing it. The time has come now, and the Americans have just taken the first step."

U.S. President George W. Bush has said one of Washington's objectives in sending military personnel to Georgia is to combat international terrorism. In comments made recently in Paris, Akhmadov reportedly praised Washington's apparent efforts to distinguish between Chechen separatists and alleged terrorists and to press Moscow to enter Chechen peace talks. But a few days before, in Washington, he also noted that the U.S.-Russia alliance against international terrorism is fueling Moscow's sense of impunity in Chechnya.

The Bush administration has come under fire both at home and abroad for voicing only mild criticism of Russia's crackdown in Chechnya. Critics say Washington tack is prompted by fears of offending Russia, a valuable partner in its war against terrorism.

In late February, the State Department ordered the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- the federal agency responsible for overseeing U.S. international broadcasting -- to postpone indefinitely the inaugural transmissions, set for 28 February, of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, including broadcasts in Chechen.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration fears the broadcast could hamper possible peace negotiations between Russia and Chechnya. Both sides held brief talks in November in Moscow, but they have not met again since then.

Akhmadov questioned the U.S. attempts to justify what he described as a "bureaucratic concession" to Russia, which opposes the North Caucasus broadcasts: "Despite all my esteem for the State Department, I cannot describe these explanations as other than absurd. There is no prospect for negotiations at this stage, and this has nothing to do with the decision to postpone the inauguration of the [North Caucasus] service. It just reflects the general [U.S.] policy regarding the [Chechen] resistance, Maskhadov, and Chechnya in general. It clearly shows that the new [U.S.] administration has made little progress toward a reassessment of the Chechen problem."

Another matter of concern to the Chechen leadership is the military help they say Russia has recently received from its partners in the antiterrorism coalition. Akhmadov said Russian troops have recently received sophisticated equipment that allows them to better intercept telephone conversations.

Asked by RFE/RL to elaborate, Akhmadov said: "We suspect that a Western European country -- or maybe the U.S. itself -- is helping Russia within the framework of the new fight against terrorism. I have expressed my concerns to the State Department, but I haven't received any reply so far. Of course, I know I should not expect a reply. I can assure you that our suspicions are not unfounded, but I do not want to elaborate on how we conceived them."

Chairing a meeting of Russia's Security Council on 26 February, Putin gave no indication that Russia might step down its military action in Chechnya in the near future. On the contrary, he said one of the goals of federal troops there is "to eliminate the heads of the armed groups and to cut off their weapons and money supply channels."