February 20th 2002 · Reuters / Elaine Monaghan · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

U.S. Wants to Help Georgia with Al Qaeda Problem

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States wants to help the former Soviet republic of Georgia root out al Qaeda fighters hiding in a lawless gorge near the Russian region of Chechnya, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.

But Washington's desire to combat followers of Osama bin Laden does not extend to enlisting Russian help to crush the militants accused of using Georgia's Pankisi gorge as a conduit to the separatist conflict in mostly Muslim Chechnya, he said.

Georgia, which has found a sympathetic ear in Washington with complaints of interference from its former Kremlin masters, says it sees no need for foreign help to fight the drug smuggling and kidnappings that have gripped the area since Russia unleashed its second campaign in Chechnya in 1999.

The U.S. official flatly denied a report on Wednesday by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency -- described as a trial balloon by one analyst -- that quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Washington had outlined a plan for a joint anti-terrorism action with Moscow in Pankisi gorge.

Russia has linked Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to Chechen guerrillas since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that were blamed on bin Laden.

Moscow has accused the West of double standards for not pursuing the Chechens with as much vigor as it has hunted down the Saudi-born exile's followers in Afghanistan.

"The Russians have said it's a Georgian problem, and we're trying to help the Georgians get a handle on it," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "There is a problem, and we're looking at ways to help support the Georgians."


He declined to say what Washington was considering but gave no hint it would take its war on terrorism to Georgia.

Remarks this month in Tbilisi by U.S. charge d'affaires Philip Remler that fighters had fled to Pankisi gorge from Afghanistan have fueled speculation that the United States might take action in the area.

The Bush administration has other options short of military action, like training or other support to Georgian forces.

Remler said in an interview with a Georgian weekly the United States wanted to create anti-terrorist forces within the Georgian defense ministry.

He said dozens of Afghan mujahideen had escaped to the Caucasus, including to the gorge, where they had contacts with Khattab, a senior Arab commander active in Chechnya.

Analysts say Russia would love to get a green light to pursue militants in neighboring Georgia.

The West's unrelenting criticism of Moscow for the scale of the bloodshed in Chechnya has grown quieter since Sept. 11, but the United States has sustained its criticism of reported Russian attacks in the Pankisi gorge area.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made clear at a news briefing that there had been no shift in this policy.

"Our goal in all this, what we have discussed with the Georgians and frankly what we've always told the Russians is that we've felt that this situation is best dealt with through ... cooperation with the United States and Georgia.

"That continues to be our approach," he said.

Georgian Security Minister Valery Khaburzania told Reuters in an interview in Tbilisi that his country saw no need to conduct an operation with foreign forces in the gorge.

He said Georgia had seized several kidnapping and drug trade suspects. "We will not stop there. We will conduct more anti-criminal, anti-terrorist operations," he said.


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