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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 16:38 GMT
US role in Georgia alarms Russia
Iroquois helicopters
The US has already given Georgia combat helicopters
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By Stephen Dalziel
BBC Russian affairs analyst
The news that US troops could be sent to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia provoked a swift condemnation from Moscow.

Five American military advisers are already in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to advise Georgian forces in the fight against terrorism.

Chechen guerrillas
Moscow says Chechen guerrillas are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge

And Washington says hundreds of soldiers could eventually be sent to Georgia, in an operation which would be similar to the training mission US troops are currently fulfilling in the Philippines.

But any deployment of US forces in a country which shares a border with Russia will provoke an outcry in Moscow.

It was not only Russia's nationalists who protested vehemently when the US was given permission to use bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, to help in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

By camping in Russia's backyard, many ordinary Russians felt that their old Cold War foe was coming too close for comfort.

Chechen threat

But Russia finds itself in a quandary.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, left, and Russia's Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev
Shevardnadze (left) met Russia's security chief last week about Pankisi

Moscow has long accused Tbilisi of doing nothing to prevent Chechen separatists from taking refuge in the Pankisi Gorge - inhospitable terrain in northern Georgia which borders on the breakaway region of Chechnya.

Ten days ago, four Georgian policemen were taken hostage in the Pankisi Gorge, an incident which Moscow said illustrated to what extent the situation there was out of the control of the Georgian authorities.

Russia further upped the stakes, by claiming that Osama Bin Laden was taking refuge in the gorge.

So Moscow tried to persuade Tbilisi to start a joint anti-terrorist operation there.

Mixed messages

Georgia has given a mixed response.

The Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, initially said that Georgia would not be prepared to mount a joint operation with Russia - but would mount one with the US.

But one of his ministers then said that there was no question of a joint operation in the Pankisi Gorge with any other country.

Georgia has in fact already had military contact with the US.

Last autumn, a 40-strong US team visited Georgia to assess the ability of the country's forces to carry out anti-terrorist operations.

Combat equipment

The Americans provided the Georgians with 10 UH-1H Iroquois helicopters (NATO codename, "Huey"), six for flying, and four for spare parts.

The statements coming out of Washington and Tbilisi about the visit of the US specialists now suggest that the two sides are looking at the same question - how to rout out the terrorists - but from different positions.

Washington says it is offering Georgia training but it is not suggesting a joint military operation, while Tbilisi, while not ruling out help, appears to be advocating joint military action.

These two positions are not mutually exclusive. But they both create a sufficiently unclear picture for Moscow to be worried.

See also:

31 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Georgia
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