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In the Caucasus, a Foreign Element Threatens

Arabs lived quietly in a Georgian village, then left, perhaps to fight in Chechnya. Suspected militants from abroad have been arrested.

November 29, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

TSINUBANI, Georgia -- In a small Georgian village where strangers are rarely seen, the foreigners bought a house and kept to themselves. Sometimes they borrowed a hammer or an ax from a neighbor, speaking broken Russian and using sign language to convey their need.

There were five Arabs in the house, according to locals in this village in the Pankisi Gorge about 30 miles from the Russian border. They had a black prayer banner pinned to an inside wall and a satellite dish, both left behind when they melted into the forests in August, along with the dozens of Chechen fighters who had made the village their base.

They also left a slogan, painted in Russian and Arabic on a shed near their house: "Paradise in the shade of sabers."

"They lived with us and then one night they just left," said Grigory Tsarigov, a 79-year-old villager. "We don't know where they went. They didn't understand our language and we didn't understand theirs. Whatever they wanted they asked with their hands."

Locals say the Arabs were in this remote village to fight on the side of separatist guerrillas against Moscow's forces in the neighboring Russian republic of Chechnya.

"If you look at the village of Tsinubani, three to four months ago it was mainly occupied by Chechen fighters and Arab terrorists," said Paata Batiashvili, head of the Kakhetia district division of Georgia's Ministry of State Security. He is responsible for operations in the Pankisi Gorge.

Tsinubani's Arabs disappeared. But about 15 non-Chechen foreigners, including Arab militants, have been arrested by Georgian authorities in the gorge in recent months. Some of the detainees have been linked to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Georgian officials say the foreign fighters were handed over to U.S. authorities. A Pentagon spokesman said last week that no guerrillas had been turned over to the American military. "We don't have them. They were not turned over to us," Maj. Tim Blair said.

The Georgian operation marked a step forward for this small Black Sea nation, whose security forces in the past were fragmented, corrupt and incompetent.

But State Security Minister Valerian Khaburdzania recently said that about 100 Arabs and 700 Chechen fighters had been in the gorge early this year before the operation began to sweep the area clean -- meaning many more have disappeared, probably fleeing to neighboring Chechnya.

"We had contacts with the leaders of the armed groups," Khaburdzania said. "We offered their people a choice of laying down their arms and becoming ordinary refugees like everyone else or leaving our territory. Otherwise we'd have to use force against them."

The Chechen fighters and many Arabs left quietly in small groups without a fight.

Further steps are planned to remove the 40 to 60 fighters believed to be still in the Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya. About 20 are Arabs, according to Georgian officials.

The gorge has been a lawless region where money and arms have been funneled to Chechen guerrillas, particularly to Khattab, a rebel commander linked to Al Qaeda who was killed by Russian forces in March. But even as of this spring, U.S. and Georgian officials believed that only a handful of Arabs with potential terrorist connections were in the area.

In Tsinubani, some of the Chechen fighters lived in empty houses, while others stayed with locals who are Kists -- ethnic Chechens born in Georgia.

The Chechens and Arabs fled into the hills in the month before Georgian forces blockaded the village Sept. 18, running a house-to-house sweep for rebels. Seventeen Chechens were arrested, but all were found to be refugees from the war between Russian troops and rebels in their homeland. They were released.

Russian officials have demanded the extradition of eight Chechens arrested crossing from Chechnya into the Pankisi Gorge over the summer. Georgia has referred the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Five other Chechens were turned over.

Even before Chechen rebels seized about 700 hostages in a Moscow theater last month, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had threatened military strikes to wipe out rebels taking shelter in Georgia. After the takeover ended Oct. 26 with security forces storming the theater, leaving 129 captives and about 50 rebels dead, Russia increased its pressure on Georgia over the Chechens' presence in the gorge.

The theater siege severely damaged the Chechen cause internationally, with the U.S. embracing Russia's line that rebel leader and former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov should be excluded from any peace talks.

But in the Pankisi Gorge, the view among Chechens and Kists of the hostage-taking is very different.

"It was a cry of despair," said Musa Magomedov, 31, from the Chechen city of Urus-Martan, a former fighter who carries a refugee ID card. "I know a girl from a village called Gekhi. Six of her brothers were killed. Her mother and father were killed in this war.

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