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Caucasus: Russia, Georgia Cross Swords Over Chechnya

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have deteriorated sharply in recent days after Georgia complained of repeated violations of its airspace by Russian military aircraft in a region close to the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russia, in turn, complains of cross-border incursions into Chechnya by armed separatists it claims have found a safe haven in Georgia. RFE/RL reports on the latest developments in uneasy relations between the two neighbors.

Prague, 5 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tension between Russia and the southern Caucasus republic of Georgia further heightened over the weekend when authorities in Tbilisi again accused Moscow of staging border incidents in an area close to the separatist region of Chechnya.

Georgia's border-guard command said yesterday that an unspecified number of Russian Sukhoi 25 bomber jets coming from Chechnya had violated its airspace to shell the mountainous area of Chontio. No casualties were reported.

As it did on 29 July, when a similar incident was reported in the same area, Russia denied the Georgian claims. Moscow said air strikes conducted over the weekend had been strictly limited to Chechen territory.

Yesterday's incident was the fourth alleged violation of Georgian airspace by Russian military aircraft in one week.

Despite Moscow's repeated denials, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, confirmed on 3 August that a Russian air raid had taken place some five kilometers inside Georgian territory.

Yesterday's border incident was reported shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had, for the second time in a week, leveled accusations against Georgia, describing the country as a haven for alleged terrorists and foreign mercenaries.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Ivanov criticized Georgia for "failing to live up to its earlier pledge to fight terrorism." Russia's chief diplomat also renewed claims that armed terrorists were using the Pankisi Gorge -- a mountainous area that borders Chechnya to the south -- as a base of operations where they "feel at home."

Ivanov also renewed Moscow's offer to assist Tbilisi in tackling Chechen separatist fighters allegedly operating in Pankisi -- a bid Georgia has persistently rejected for fear that Russian armed forces might feel free to operate on its territory.

Georgia has always denied harboring large numbers of armed separatists in Pankisi -- a region with a reputation of lawlessness that, in addition to 7,000 ethnic Chechens known as Kists, is home to hundreds of refugees who have fled the combat zone in Russia's breakaway republic. Only recently did Georgian officials admit to the possibility of wounded fighters crossing the border to receive medical treatment behind the front line.

Yet, authorities in Tbilisi now claim Russia is purposely driving armed separatists south, effectively forcing them to cross the Georgian border in a bid to expose Tbilisi's alleged collusion with Chechnya's separatist leaders.

On 4 August, Georgia's State Security Ministry reported that seven Chechen fighters had been apprehended the day before while attempting to cross the border. Six of these men were wounded and have been hospitalized in Tbilisi, while the seventh has been put in jail.

Hinting at what other Georgian officials openly describe as Moscow's duplicity, State Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili said the seven had crossed a section of the border "particularly well-manned by Russian border guards."

Georgian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the incident, but whether they will hand over the seven violators -- who could face up to 10 years in jail for illegally crossing the border with their weapons -- to their Russian counterparts remains unclear.

Addressing a Russian cabinet meeting today, President Vladimir Putin said he will insist that all Chechen fighters arrested last week be sent to Moscow and that Georgia's next moves regarding the detainees will help assess its commitment to the fight against terrorism. "We shall judge how serious the intention of the Georgian authorities to fight terrorism is depending on how quickly these criminals will end up in [Moscow's] Lefortovo prison, in the hands of Russian justice. Today, the Prosecutor-General's Office will send the documents needed to have those bandits extradited to Russia," Putin said.

Addressing reporters during his weekly press briefing, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today said the seven will be extradited, but only if Moscow substantiates its claims that they are "criminals and terrorists." "[The fighters] are responsible in view of criminal law because they have violated our state border and they will probably be tried. This is what we have done in the past and this is what we will do now. If, [as Russia says,] there are criminals and terrorists among them, then the Russians will have to provide all documents [substantiating their claims]. We will then allow them to interrogate [the fighters] and, after the necessary investigation is completed, we will hand over the [proven] criminals [to Russia]," Shevardnadze said.

Meanwhile, Georgian border guards today reported the overnight arrest of another group of fighters attempting to enter the country illegally from an area where heavy clashes with Russian troops had been reported in recent days.

The fighting took place near Itum-Kale, a southern Chechen administrative district from which Russian authorities claim armed separatists have slipped in from Georgia. Russian military officials say more than 20 Chechen fighters and eight federal border guards have been killed in the clashes.

Adding pressure on Georgia, Russia is now threatening to turn to the United Nations Security Council -- of which it is a permanent member -- to force Georgia into a more compliant policy on Chechnya.

Speaking to reporters yesterday during a tour in Russia's Far East region, the speaker of the Federation Council upper chamber of parliament, Sergei Mironov, suggested that the UN Security Council mandate an international force to help Tbilisi restore law and order in Pankisi.

Echoing Mironov's comments, the chairman of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mikhail Margelov, said yesterday such a force should include both Russian and Georgian military units, as well as troops from countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

In a bid to dismiss Russian accusations that his country is condoning the activities of Chechen separatists, on 2 August Georgian State Security Minister Valerii Khaburdzania urged fighters reportedly hiding in Pankisi to surrender. Yet, in a more defiant note, Khaburdzania also pledged that, with the exception of those suspected of "serious crimes," all fighters will be considered refugees and treated accordingly.

The United States, which has been training the Georgian armed forces in the antiterrorism fight since last May despite Moscow's objections, has expressed its concerns about recent developments along the Russian-Georgian border. But Washington has so far refrained from public criticism of Russia, a key ally in its global antiterrorism drive.

On 31 July, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said Washington is closely monitoring the situation in the region. He also sent a veiled warning to the Kremlin, saying the U.S. administration will regard any violation of Georgia's territorial integrity as a serious incident. "We are closely following the situation on the Russia-Georgia border. As we've made clear previously, the United States strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. We would therefore be seriously concerned to learn of any violations of that sovereignty. So we're closely monitoring reports of clashes between Russian troops and armed Chechen groups along Russia's border with Georgia. In that regard, our position remains that only a negotiated solution can end the conflict. And we've urged both the Russians and the Chechens to seek such a solution. So we've been in regular contact with the governments of both Russia and Georgia, making clear our unequivocal support for Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we'd like to facilitate stable, constructive relations between Russia and Georgia," Reeker said.

There has been no official U.S. reaction since the OSCE observers confirmed that Russian military aircraft had violated Georgia's airspace on 2 August.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions with Russia, Shevardnadze today said the border incidents reported so far do not have a "threatening character" and, therefore, should not serve as a pretext for military retaliation.

He also made it clear that he has not given up hope that a new Russian-Georgian friendship pact will be signed by the end of the year.

Negotiations over the treaty -- meant to replace a similar document signed in 1994 but never ratified by Moscow -- resumed last year. The sides remain stymied on several issues, notably on the fate of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia -- in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Akhalkalaki and in the southern autonomous republic of Adzharia.

Meanwhile, Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze today said a planned meeting between Russian and Georgian experts, due to start tomorrow in the Russian capital, has been indefinitely postponed.

Sikharulidze said consultations had been put off after Russia requested additional time for its experts to prepare the necessary documents. Tbilisi-based media, however, speculate that the recent border incidents were the more likely reason for postponing the talks.