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Monday, 5 August, 2002, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
The problem with the Pankisi
Georgian Interior Ministry troops at Pankisi Gorge checkpoint
Georgia insists it can deal with the gorge problem

The Pankisi Gorge in Northern Georgia is an unlikely setting for an international conflict.

At least, it was, before the conflict in Chechnya, across the border in the Russian Federation, and the international war on terrorism.

Suddenly, this harsh terrain with its breathtaking scenery became an attractive haven, both for Chechen fighters wanting to push the Russians out of their homeland, and, according to US intelligence, for members of the al-Qaeda movement.

Map showing Pankisi Gorge
Moscow believes the two are inextricably linked, which is one reason why the Kremlin has so strongly backed the US in its fight against international terrorism; and why it now wants an operation to clear the gorge.

Before the Chechen conflict began, the Pankisi Gorge was home to the Kists - a Muslim people related to the Chechens - and Orthodox Christian Georgians.

But an influx of refugees from Chechnya upset the balance, and caused many - now, allegedly, all - of the Georgians to flee.

The difficult access to the gorge, and the fact that it was written off by the Georgian security services as being too dangerous an environment in which to operate, made it a safe haven for rebel groups.

The Pankisi is close enough to the border with Chechnya for rebel groups to carry out raids into the republic against Russian troops, before using the mountainous terrain to slip back into the safety of the gorge.

Tit-for-tat claims

When Georgian forces managed to capture seven Chechens on Saturday, the authorities in Tbilisi tried to use this to show that they were in control of the situation.

Georgian Orthodox church in Pankisi Gorge
Georgian Christians say Muslim incomers have driven them out

But Moscow wants the Chechens handed over, and says that, on the contrary, as Tbilisi has succeeded in capturing so few of the rebels, it shows an international operation is needed to flush out the gorge.

Georgia has accused Russia of carrying out three air raids on the Pankisi in the last week, which Moscow denies.

Georgia has admitted that there is a problem in the gorge; but has decided that it is linked more to the international war on terrorism, and so has called in American help.

A 200-strong team of US military trainers is currently in Georgia, with the aim of training Georgian troops in techniques which will be needed to fight in the gorge.

But Tbilisi has a problem. It called for 500 volunteers to come forward to be trained by the Americans.

So far, only 100 have taken up the challenge.

This gives greater strength to Russia's argument that any military operation against armed formations in the Pankisi should be an international one.

Preserving independence

The Russian argument, though, offends Georgia's post-Soviet sensibilities.

In the years before the collapse of the USSR, Georgia was one of the most fervently pro-independence Soviet republics.


The idea that more Russian troops should be allowed to enter Georgia to carry out a military operation raises the spectre of a creeping Russian presence

And there has been an ongoing row with Russia over what Tbilisi alleges is Moscow's support for separatists in the coastal region of Abkhazia.

Although officially a part of Georgia, Moscow has fuelled breakaway sentiments there by granting Russian citizenship to any Abkhaz citizen who asks for it.

The idea that more Russian troops should be allowed to enter Georgia to carry out a military operation in the Pankisi Gorge raises the spectre of a creeping Russian presence which would eat away at Georgia's hard-won independence.

Tbilisi, Moscow and Washington - and, by implication, the international community backing the war against terrorism - agree that there is a problem in the Pankisi Gorge.

But the legacy of the Soviet period and Georgia's fear of once again falling too heavily under Moscow's sway could have the effect of keeping the gorge as a safe haven for Chechen and other rebels.

See also:

03 Mar 02 | Media reports
31 Dec 01 | Country profiles
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