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Russia Ready to Root Out Chechen Rebels in Georgia, Putin Tells the U.N.

September 13, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Echoing U.S. claims that the war against terrorism needs expansion, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin informed the United Nations on Thursday that his forces were preparing strikes against Chechen rebels and alleged foreign extremists taking refuge in neighboring Georgia.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Putin invoked a Security Council resolution passed after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States to justify plans for a cross-border invasion to punish those who have helped plan or execute acts of terrorism.

The letter preceded by just a few hours President Bush's address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he made his case for military action against Iraq to prevent President Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction. Putin used much the same argument in seeking to justify strikes against Georgian-based militants.

"If the Georgian leadership doesn't take concrete actions to destroy the terrorists, and bandit incursions continue from its territory, Russia will take adequate measures to counteract the terrorist threat," Putin wrote.

Seeking to unite U.S. and Russian terrorist experiences into a collective victimization, Putin said his forces have evidence that Chechen rebels taking refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge took part in planning the attacks on the United States a year ago, as well as apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 that killed more than 300 people.

Amid the mounting talk of war, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze convened his Security Council, and the Georgian parliament met in emergency session.

Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze said the government in Tbilisi would take both "diplomatic and internal policy steps" to avert conflict.

Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze told reporters that any military operations waged against Georgia would prompt the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers from the Abkhazia area along the Black Sea, where Moscow has both economic and security interests.

Another participant in the meeting, deputy council chief Rusudan Beridze, said Georgia was looking for a third country to take the militants but had yet to find a host.

"Georgian authorities should understand that they are responsible for any actions threatening neighboring states and international security that may come from Georgia's territory," Mikhail Margelov, head of the international affairs committee of Russia's Federation Council, or upper house, told the Itar-Tass news agency. But he added that Putin's warning was to terrorists based in Georgia, not to the country itself.

Russia has been trying to convince Georgia for weeks that the two nations should launch a joint force to purge remote Georgian territory of rebels, some of whom are suspected by U.S. officials of having ties with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Georgia last month sent troops to sweep the Pankisi Gorge but alerted their targets ahead of time, giving the rebels time to find other hide-outs in the rugged mountains that separate Georgia from the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Although tensions soared between Moscow and Tbilisi as the threat of conflict intensified, a Russian official said the two countries' foreign ministers might meet in New York, where they are attending the U.N. General Assembly.

After Putin made his ominous warnings to Georgia in a televised address Wednesday night, Shevardnadze called the Russian leader's accusations "hasty and groundless."

On Thursday, a State Department spokeswoman told wire services that the U.S. would oppose unilateral military action by Russia inside Georgia. U.S. Army forces are training Georgian troops in counter-terrorism techniques, and Washington has pledged to support the sovereignty of Georgia.

Putin said in his letter to Annan that Russia had successfully driven Chechen militants and their alleged foreign supporters out of Russian territory but remains vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks from across the border.

Putin said any Russian action in Georgia would not be aimed at "undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country" or ousting current leaders.

Should the Kremlin agree to look the other way on a U.S. invasion of Iraq if Washington does the same on a Russian attack on Georgia, Putin can probably count on the support, or at least acquiescence, of his nation's legislators.

"The Pankisi Gorge is a boil for Russia," Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the legislation committee in the State Duma, the lower house, told Itar-Tass, asserting his support for Putin's pledge to wipe out Georgian-based terrorist suspects.

"Russia has the right to carry out preemptive strikes against territories from which a potential threat comes to the security of the country and its citizens," insisted Igor Morozov, a Federation Council deputy, adding that Moscow has evidence that terrorists responsible for the 1999 bombings are hiding in Georgia.

Other lawmakers supported the bellicose stance against Georgia but urged the Kremlin to seek U.N. Security Council authorization--a position they have pushed as well for Washington's plans to contain Iraq.

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