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Sunday, 25 August, 2002, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
US rebukes Russia over bombing
Georgian soldier surveys bomb-damaged lorry in Pankisi Gorge
Russia sees Pankisi as a shelter for the rebels
The White House has issued a strongly worded statement condemning reported attacks by Russian aircraft on a remote region of Georgia which has further strained relations between the two ex-Soviet states.

President George W Bush's spokesman said he was deeply concerned about the "credible" reports and regretted the loss of life and violation of Georgian sovereignty.


The US is deeply concerned about credible reports that Russian military aircraft indiscriminately bombed villages in northern Georgia

Ari Fleischer,
White House spokesman
Russia has denied that its air force mounted the attack and suggested it may have been part of a security operation by US-trained Georgian troops due to begin on Sunday.

Georgia's lawless Pankisi Gorge region, which borders Chechnya, has long been regarded by Russia as a base for Chechen rebels while the US suspects Islamic militants of operating there.

"The United States is deeply concerned about credible reports that Russian military aircraft indiscriminately bombed villages in northern Georgia on August 23, resulting in the killing of civilians," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Map of Georgia showing Pankisi gorge

Russia, he said, was stoking tension with Georgia by violating its sovereignty and issuing a denial which "belied" assurances that it respected Georgian independence.

Asked if Saturday's rebuke affected President Bush's relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Fleischer said they had not soured and it would be wrong to "read more into it than what it says".

BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb says the Bush administration has been accused of turning a blind eye to human rights violations in the search for international allies.

But on this occasion, our correspondent says, it would appear that Washington judged that the Russians had gone too far.

'Prove it'

The Georgian Government says at least one person was killed and five wounded when several villages in the Pankisi Gorge were bombed at dawn on Friday.

The head of the Russian air force's press service, Colonel Alexander Drobyshevski, flatly denied involvement.


As far as I know, the Georgian military have started a special operation in this region to eliminate the bandit groups

Sergei Ivanov
Russian defence minister
Russian warplanes "did not violate the air border with Georgia" nor had the Russian air force flown "any missions in the area of the Russian-Georgian border on Friday", he said.

He challenged Georgia to provide "documented proof" of Russian violations of its airspace, whether on Friday or at any time over the past year.

Russia's defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, suggested that the bombing may have been part of the Georgian security forces' own crackdown on Pankisi, which has long been out of Tbilisi's effective control.

"As far as I know, the Georgian military have started a special operation in this region to eliminate the bandit groups," he said.

The secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, Tedo Japaridze, condemned the suggestion that Georgia had bombed its own territory as a "cynical" remark.

Crackdown

Mr Japaridze also confirmed that Georgian security forces would begin an "anti-terrorist operation" in the Pankisi Gorge on Sunday, under the direct command of President Eduard Shevardnadze.

He did not give details of the size of the operation or whom it was aimed against.

Russia has long sought permission to conduct military operations in the gorge, but Tbilisi has rejected requests, choosing instead to invite US military instructors to train its own troops for anti-terrorist operations.

US officials say they believe the gorge, home to one of Georgia's Muslim minorities, may be harbouring Islamic militants with links to al-Qaeda.

Tension between Moscow and Tbilisi was expected to increase after the discovery of the bodies of eight border guards on Russia's North Ossetian border with Georgia.

In another development, both Russian and Chechen rebel sources have been reporting that a large Chechen rebel force is moving towards Chechnya from Pankisi.

 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
"The Georgian authorities have a bigger problem with Moscow"
See also:

04 Aug 02 | Europe
31 Jul 02 | Europe
29 Nov 00 | Europe
22 May 02 | Country profiles
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