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Gorge the Subject of New Flap

Caucasus: A Russian official says Moscow's forces will co-patrol Pankisi. Georgia says no.

September 07, 2002|From Associated Press

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Russia's interior minister said he reached an agreement with Georgian officials Friday to conduct joint operations in the Pankisi Gorge after months of tension over the crime-infested area bordering Chechnya, but a Georgian official said no Russian forces would enter the gorge.

Georgia recently started its own operation in the gorge and has repeatedly refused Russia's offers to help rid the area of Chechen rebels, who Moscow says use Pankisi as a base and a supply line. Russian officials have scorned the Georgian efforts as a sham.

Speaking here in the Azerbaijani capital, Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said he and his Georgian counterpart had agreed to conduct a joint search for militants in the gorge, according to the Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies.

"We are talking about a joint search. The Georgian side will carry out the detentions independently. Once the members of the bandit groups are identified, it won't be too hard to catch them," Interfax quoted Gryzlov as saying.

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Interior Ministry spokesman Paata Gomelauri said Russia could help Georgian authorities arrest suspects in crimes committed on Russian territory--if Moscow was able to provide specifics about them. But he said there would be no Russian presence in the gorge.

In Baku, Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said, "We can bring order ourselves."

Earlier Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized Georgia's operation in Pankisi and reiterated Moscow's demand that Georgia disarm the alleged rebels on its territory and hand them over to Russia.

Moscow has long accused Georgia of sheltering Chechen rebels, while Georgia has countered that Russia pushed the militants into Georgian territory in the first place when it launched its second war in Chechnya in five years. The United States believes some of the militants could be linked to Al Qaeda.

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