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Caucasus: Tensions Between Russia, Georgia Mount Over Pankisi Operations

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow escalated today with Georgia stepping up accusations that Russia staged an air raid on its territory on 23 August. Tbilisi says the attack was aimed at disrupting preparations for crucial military exercises begun in the lawless Pankisi Gorge on 25 August. The White House condemned Moscow for the attack, but Russian officials are denying any responsibility for the incident.

Moscow, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi spiraled further out of control today, with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze accusing Russia of trying to disrupt military operations in the Pankisi Gorge by staging an air raid on Georgian territory on 23 August.

The allegations came after Tbilisi sent 1,000 Interior Ministry troops into the unruly region north of the capital on 25 August for exercises seen as a crucial test of the country's ability to preserve its territorial integrity.

Moscow has long insisted that Chechen rebels use the mountainous Pankisi area for shelter and as a staging area for cross-border attacks into Chechnya. Russia has in the past been accused of routinely crossing into Georgia to bomb targets, usually in pursuit of Chechen rebels.

Relations between the two former Soviet states reached new lows over the weekend after Tbilisi accused Moscow of killing one man and wounding seven other people in its raid in northern Georgia on 23 August. Footage on Russian television showed the smoldering remains of what appeared to be the target of a bomb attack.

In a press conference on 23 August, Shevardnadze denounced the attack. "Believe me, we never wanted, even today we do not want this extreme tension in relations between Russia and Georgia. And so we urge everyone in Russia and, first and foremost, [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, to stop this hunt on Georgian villages," Shevardnadze said.

Russian Defense Ministry officials stridently deny any responsibility for the incident. But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which maintains patrols along the Georgia-Chechnya border, reported tracking unidentified aircraft crossing from Russia into Georgia for a bombing raid.

Washington weighed in during the weekend over what it called the "indiscriminate bombing" of Georgian villages.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking on 24 August, said, "The U.S. regrets this loss of life and deplores the violation of Georgia's sovereignty." He added that the attacks "escalate existing tension between Russia and Georgia."

Shevardnadze welcomed the statements. But politicians in Moscow criticized the White House remarks, with State Duma Deputy Chairman Vladimir Lukin accusing Washington of using double standards. "In the history of international relations there have been precedents in which state borders have been violated for the extermination of terrorist sources, as the United States has done at various times," the Interfax news agency reported him as saying.

The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced Tbilisi for refusing to crack down on Chechen rebels again on 24 August, after reports said the bodies of eight Russian border guards had been found near the Georgian border. The ministry also said it was considering a reply to the U.S. statements.

Shevardnadze today said the Russian raid was directed at disrupting the Interior Ministry operations now under way in the Pankisi Gorge. He also said he had sent a letter of complaint to Putin, and has urged Russia to help mend its fractious relations with Georgia.

Also, contrary to Russian speculation regarding pockets of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge, Shevardnadze today said Georgian troops have so far encountered no enemy in the gorge operations. In addition to the Interior Ministry troops, some 1,500 Defense Ministry troops under the command of officers trained in antiterrorism tactics by U.S. special forces now based in Georgia have also begun exercises in the southern edge of the gorge.

Shevardnadze said the operations are aimed at freeing the Pankisi Gorge of "criminal elements of all stripes." "There are serious concerns that there still may be a significant number of criminals and possibly terrorists remaining in the area," Shevardnadze said.

Tbilisi is crippled by its inability to control large parts of the country's territory. Its military operations are likely as much a show of force directed at Moscow as an attempt to bring order to the crime-infested Pankisi Gorge. The area shelters an estimated 5,000 Chechen refugees in addition to an indigenous population of 7,000 and is rife with kidnapping and other criminal activity.

Moscow has repeatedly proposed sending its own troops to the Pankisi Gorge. Tbilisi has rebuffed the offers, saying that Russia, which has supported rebels in Georgia's own breakaway regions, is trying to undermine its sovereignty.

General Valerii Chkheidze is the head of Georgia's border guards. In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, he said an incursion by Russian troops cannot be ruled out. "It's a very complicated, tense situation. Every minute we expect violations of the border. So we are permanently ready to act. We brought additional forces to the region. Unfortunately, they are taken from some other border-guard posts, but there is no other way," Chkheidze said.

Such uncertainty extends to fears not only of a cross-border incursion but of future air raids as well. Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze told RFE/RL today there is no guarantee Pankisi is safe from future bombings. "I can't guarantee that the bombardment won't happen again. I can't guarantee it to anybody. On the contrary, it's more probable that it will happen again. We will do something against it," Tevzadze said.

The Georgian parliament is holding an unscheduled session today to discuss relations with Moscow. A minority group of legislators has demanded that Georgia's ambassador in Moscow be recalled and work suspended on a framework agreement between the two countries.

In neighboring Chechnya, a spokesman for the separatist leadership praised Georgia for its quick response to the raids. In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev also said there is no substance to Russian fears that Chechen rebels are collecting in large numbers in the Pankisi Gorge. "Russian high-ranking military officials have repeatedly claimed that there is a concentration of military bases run by Chechen resistance forces and even by international terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. However, yesterday and today, this myth was dispelled. Georgia's [Interior Ministry] troops entered the gorge and are now practically in every village there," Zakaev said.

He added that Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's separatist president, "welcomes the decisive actions taken by the Georgian leadership aimed at the stabilization of the situation in this region." These actions, Maskhadov said, leave no room for "speculation on the part of the Russian military in trying to drag Georgia into their hazardous war [in Chechnya]."

(Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service and Aslan Doukaev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)