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CHECHNYA LINKS LIBRARY

February 11th 2002 · Associated Press · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

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 published Monday.

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.

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