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Putin Backs U.S. Involvement in Georgia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The outcry among politicians here about U.S. plans to train and equip a Georgian anti-terrorist force ended abruptly Friday when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin declared it “no tragedy.”

But as Russian generals and diplomats scrambled to align their positions with the president, there was obvious tension between the Russian and Georgian leaders at a meeting of former Soviet states in Kazakhstan.

The problem, Putin charged, was that Georgia didn’t inform Russia of the U.S. plan. Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze insisted that the Russians were told.

As part of a $64-million program, 100 to 200 U.S. military advisors would begin arriving in Georgia in mid-month to train about 1,000 local soldiers as an anti-terrorist force, a senior U.S. official said in Moscow. Washington will supply communications equipment, vehicles, light weapons and ammunition, the official said.

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The U.S. expectation is that Georgia will act to bring its lawless Pankisi Gorge back under control. The gorge, which U.S. officials fear has been infiltrated by terrorists, borders the strife-torn Russian republic of Chechnya.

Last month, Philip Remler, a senior U.S. diplomat in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, said that several dozen Afghan fighters had fled to the Caucasus, many of them to the Pankisi Gorge, and that the fighters included members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

As Washington broadens its focus in the anti-terrorist campaign, Georgian and U.S. officials have issued vague, sometimes contradictory statements on the numbers of foreign terrorists in the gorge, where they came from and to what extent they overlap with rebels fighting for Chechen independence.

Although the U.S. exercise in Georgia isn’t designed to target Chechen rebels, the line between Chechen rebels and foreign fighters who have joined or armed them in recent years is often blurry.

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Moreover, with Georgia estimating that 1,000 to 1,500 Chechen fighters are in the gorge, there are fears of casualties among the 14,000 civilians and refugees in the area once the Georgians are strong enough to mount an anti-terrorist operation there.

Georgia, a weak state plagued by corruption, has struggled to stand on its own feet since the fall of the Soviet Union, bristling at the interference of its giant northern neighbor, Russia.

Putin has solidly supported the anti-terrorist campaign. He hasn’t protested the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia, despite a strong vein of nationalist sentiment in Russia, which sees Georgia and Central Asia as spheres of Russian influence.

At a meeting in Kazakhstan on Friday of the leaders of the 12 former Soviet states that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States, Putin said that if U.S. involvement was possible in Central Asia, “why not Georgia?”

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Underscoring his nation’s military weakness and its reluctance to get involved in a potentially tough battle with Chechen rebels in the gorge, Georgian Security Minister Valery Khaburdzania said he hopes that fighters in the gorge will disappear, averting the need for force.

“We want these illegal formations to simply leave our territory and not create any problems for us,” he said in an interview published Friday in the Moscow daily Vremya Novostei.

He said that there were a dozen Arabs in the gorge but that not all were Al Qaeda terrorists.

“Even the Americans cannot assert that the dozen Arabs who are in the Pankisi Gorge are definitely connected with Al Qaeda,” Khaburdzania said.

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Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman Mirian Kiknadze said there were no more than two dozen international terrorists in the gorge.

“Since the situation in the gorge is very difficult to control, it is next to impossible to know for sure how many people exactly there are,” he said, adding that some might have arrived from Arab countries posing as businessmen.

“None of them has the word ‘terrorist’ written on his forehead, and you cannot possibly detain every single Arab who comes to Georgia on suspicion of him being a fighter.

“But in any case, the number of international terrorists in the gorge is insignificant, and their presence there does not affect the overall situation in the Pankisi Gorge,” Kiknadze said.

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He said that although the presence of Arab fighters couldn’t be ruled out, it was unlikely that more than a few Afghan fighters were in the gorge. Police and border guards in neighboring Azerbaijan had detained some Afghans, he said.

Khaburdzania described the gorge as unattractive to terrorists because it lacked an escape route.

Not counting Chechens, Georgian officials have twice recently detained small groups of foreign fighters. They detained five Afghans trying to escape to Europe several weeks ago in the Black Sea port of Poti. A Jordanian and a Saudi who allegedly wanted to set up a terrorist network were detained and deported last year.

Kakha Katsitadze, a Tbilisi-based military analyst, said Afghan fighters might reach Georgia because pervasive corruption in the former Soviet states meant that borders were porous. He said he believed that there were few international terrorists in the gorge but that they were nonetheless a destabilizing force.

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