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Sunday, 25 August, 2002, 19:46 GMT 20:46 UK
Georgian troops enter rebel refuge
Georgian tanks in the Pankisi Gorge
The troops are backed by 30 or so tanks
Georgia has sent about 1,000 troops into the lawless Pankisi Gorge near the border with Chechnya, which Russia says has become a refuge for Chechen rebels.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said its forces were undertaking anti-criminal and anti-terrorist operations in the gorge.

Tension between Russia and Georgia over the gorge has been mounting in recent weeks and Moscow has threatened direct military action unless Tbilisi tackles the problem.

Map of Georgia showing Pankisi gorge
Georgia claims that Russian jets bombed villages near the gorge on Friday. Russia strongly denied the claim but the United States issued a rebuke against a "violation of Georgian sovereignty".

The Georgian authorities acknowledged months ago that the gorge was providing shelter for rebels, but refused to allow Russian troops on to its territory.

Instead, Tbilisi invited American special forces to train its defence ministry troops to carry out anti-terrorist operations in the Gorge.

The BBC's Russian affairs analyst, Stephen Dalziel, said the invitation angered the Kremlin.

A war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi followed, with Georgia accusing Russia of violating its border.

The tension culminated on Friday when Georgia claimed that Russian jets had bombed sites near the gorge, killing two civilians.

US concern

Despite the Russian denial, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the US was "deeply concerned about credible reports that Russian military aircraft indiscriminately bombed villages in northern Georgia".

He said the US deplored the violation of Georgia's sovereignty which "belied Moscow's assurances of respect for Georgian independence".

Our correspondent says Russia will now watch developments closely, and will be only too ready to criticise anything but a full-scale operation to clear the gorge.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he had been heartened by the US criticism of Russia.
Georgian troops in the Pankisi Gorge
Georgia says it will clear the gorge of militants

"The whole world supports us," he told state television on Sunday.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Nikolai Deryabin again insisted Moscow had not been behind an air attack, saying: "Instead of taking concrete measures to eliminate the hotbed of terrorism in the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia is again engaging in speculation."

Major General Georgy Sharvashidze, commander of Georgia's interior ministry troops, told the Associated Press News agency that his forces had set up checkpoints in Duisi, Dzhokolo and other villages.

When the operation was announced on 17 August, Mr Shevardnadze vowed that the gorge would be cleansed of criminals and militants.

The Georgian defence ministry has also begun anti-terrorism exercises near the southern edge of the gorge.

A spokesman said those troops - trained by the US - could also be used in the current operation.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Donna Larsen
"The war against terrorism is neither as simple nor united as it's often presented"
The BBC's Stephen Dalziel
"Georgia has acknowledged there is a problem there"

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See also:

25 Aug 02 | Europe
05 Aug 02 | Europe
04 Aug 02 | Europe
22 May 02 | Country profiles
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