US: Afghan terrorists hide in Georgia
TBILISI - Terrorists linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror
network are hiding in Georgia's mountains on the border with Russia's
breakaway republic of Chechnya, a U.S. diplomat said in an interview
U.S. charge d'affaires Philip Remler said several dozen terrorists
from Afghanistan are now operating in the Caucasus Mountains region,
and some of them are staying in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. They
maintain contacts with Khattab, a Jordanian warlord who has been
fighting in Chechnya. Khattab, in turn, maintains contacts with bin
Laden, Remler said.
The U.S. Embassy press office confirmed the accuracy of the
interview, which was conducted in Georgian.
Remler said that the Pankisi Gorge has become a source of crime that
threatens Georgia's stability. He said that the United States was
ready to help efforts to combat al-Qaida.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who served as Soviet foreign
minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, has maintained warm ties with the
United States. Washington has provided military helicopters and other
assistance to the Georgian military worth more than dlrs 30 million.
The situation in the gorge, which is home to the Chechens' ethnic kin
in Georgia, is a source of tension in relations between Georgia and
Russia. Moscow has described the gorge as a training ground and arms
smuggling route for the Chechen rebels.
Georgian officials initially dismissed Russia's accusations, saying
that there were no rebels among the approximately 7,000 Chechen
refugees staying there. But recently they have acknowledged that some
armed rebels were hiding there, and launched security operations last
month to uproot them.
The gorge has become a center of kidnapping, a major problem in both
Georgia and Chechnya. Residents of several surrounding villages
blamed the government for failing to uproot criminal gangs and
started forming armed volunteer groups for protection.
Georgian Security Minister Valery Khaburzania said recently that
government forces had detained several Saudi and Jordanian citizens**
who were trying to create a terrorist base in the Pankisi Gorge. At
the same time, he said that Georgia wouldn't allow Russian troops to
launch an operation against rebels on its territory.