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Georgia: Shevardnadze Delays Trip To Azerbaijan

Tbilisi, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has delayed a trip to neighboring Azerbaijan where he is to attend a ceremony for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in order to deal with the situation in the Pankisi Gorge. Shevardnadze was scheduled to arrive in the Azerbaijani capital Baku today but his office said Shevardnadze has delayed his departure from Tbilisi to meet with his security officials. The group will discuss the military operation underway in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Shevardnadze's office said the president will arrive in Baku in time for tomorrow's ceremony at Azerbaijan's Sangachala oil terminal. The ceremony will mark the official start of construction of the pipeline.

Turkish President Necdet Sezer and U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abrahams are also scheduled to attend the ceremony.

Meanwhile, Georgia said today it hopes to finish its antiterrorist operations currently underway in the Pankisi Gorge next month.

Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said that, according to the ministry's provisional plans, the operations should be winding down some time next month.

Bezhuashvili said Georgian forces do not need Russia's help to track down suspected Chechen separatists and any terrorists who may be in the gorge.

The operation comes after a group of Chechen fighters reportedly crossed into Chechnya last month and killed several Russian soldiers. The Russian military said they had surrounded the Chechen fighters in Chechnya, killed many of them, but some had retreated into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

The Russian government has threatened to take military action in the Pankisi Gorge if the Georgian government does not stop the rebel activities.