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Sunday, 3 March, 2002, 15:35 GMT
Tension on edge of Georgian gorge
Georgian Interior Ministry troops at checkpoint
Tense times ahead for troops in the Pankisi Gorge
The arrival in Georgia of a small team of US military experts and the announcement that 200 troops may be sent there to help in the war on terrorism has focused attention on the country's Pankisi Gorge, bordering on Chechnya.

Apart from Georgia and the United States, the country that has shown greatest interest in the move is Russia, which has long accused Georgia of failing to act against Chechen rebels who it says have been sheltering in the gorge.

Initial reaction from Moscow was negative, but President Vladimir Putin later said the main thing was that action was finally being taken against both the Chechen rebels and the al-Qaeda fighters who are suspected of having joined them.

Georgian Orthodox church in Pankisi Gorge
Georgian Christians fear Islamist incomers
The main evening news on state-owned Russian Public TV on Saturday gave prominence to a despatch by a correspondent just back from the Pankisi Gorge - or as close as it was safe to go.

Anton Stepanenko's report focused on the situation at a checkpoint manned by Georgian Interior Ministry troops at the edge of the gorge.

After the refugees from Chechnya arrived, the gorge gained a bad reputation... The Georgian Patriarchy declared bluntly that Islamic extremism was on the march

Russian Public TV reporter

"Beyond here", he explained, "the so-called zone of unrest begins, where Chechens - both local and from Chechnya - live and there are no police or soldiers."

The Pankisi Gorge is home to the Kists, a local ethnic-Chechen community, as well as refugees from Chechnya who have moved in more recently.

The gorge lies in Georgia's Akhmeta District, which - in the Russian reporter's account - has been split in two since the new arrivals from Chechnya upset the previous coexistence between the Kists and Orthodox Georgians.

Incomers blamed

"After the refugees from Chechnya arrived, the gorge gained a bad reputation," he said.

Mosque in Pankisi Gorge
Pankisi has an established local Chechen community

"Now there are no Orthodox congregations: Georgians who used to live beside the local Chechens tried to leave that unstable place, and the Georgian patriarchy declared bluntly that Islamic extremism was on the march."

A local Georgian woman blamed the incomers for rising crime.

"Criminal elements are undermining the Kists' reputation," she told the reporter.

"Among Chechens there are good people as well as those with whom we are fed up."

There is virtually no information on what is actually going on in the gorge... Nevertheless, there are signs of increased activity

TV reporter

As for the soldiers at the unofficial frontier, the report said, the constant threat of attack forces them to rearrange the concrete blocks that constitute their checkpoint at least once a week, to give them extra time to respond.

The reporter found them unwilling to talk, although their gestures invited him - and his viewers - to draw conclusions from the appearance of some motorists.

Bearded man at Pankisi Gorge checkpoint
Some drivers arouse the soldiers' suspicions
"They reckon that the distinctive appearance of some refugees who drive through a few times a day speaks for itself," he commented, as his film showed a bearded man with a skullcap and camouflage jacket returning to his car.

In general, the reporter found information hard to come by.

"There is virtually no information on what is actually going on in the gorge or on the plans of the secret services.

"Nevertheless", he concluded, "there are signs of increased activity."

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

31 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Georgia
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