February 15th 2002 · The Guardian / Ian Traynor · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

US targets al-Qaida hideout in Georgia

Dozens of al-Qaida militants or Taliban fighters have fled Afghanistan and moved into the fragile post-Soviet state of Georgia, according to US and Russian officials who are pressing the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze to strike at the radicals' alleged mountain redoubts in the north of the country.

Russian intelligence sources said that Pakistani, Arab and Pashtun Taliban fighters had recently sought refuge in the rugged Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia, close to the border with Chechnya. The senior US diplomat in Tbilisi said Washington wanted to train counter-terrorist forces in Georgia to tackle the problem.

In an interview with a Georgian newspaper this week, the US chargé d'affaires in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, said that scores of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters had scattered across the Caucasus.

The Russians have long maintained that the Pankisi Gorge, an area where the Tbilisi government's writ does not run, is a vital corridor for Chechen rebel fighters and foreign Islamists infiltrating Chechnya to the north to fight the Russians. Mr Remler's remarks amounted to Washington's first announcement of similar claims.

"As for al-Qaida, according to our information, several tens of Mojahedin fled from Afghanistan and are now hiding in the Caucasus," he said. "We are also aware that some of them are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge and are in contact with Al-Khattab, an Arab terrorist. The latter, for his part, is connected with Osama bin Laden. The Pankisi Gorge is an extremely dangerous place for Georgia."

Khattab is a prominent Arab mercenary and warlord, intimately involved in the war in Chechnya against the Russians for the past two-and-a-half years. Although usually described as a Jordanian, Khattab, according to Russian intelligence, is a Saudi-born militant and millionaire who trained with Bin Laden in the early 90s in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The intense pressure from Washington and Moscow - rivals for influence in Georgia in recent years but now making common cause in the war on terrorism - appears to have triggered a U-turn in Tbilisi, which in the past has tended to ridicule Russian claims about fighters, funds, and arms flowing from Georgia into Chechnya.

Last weekend Georgia's security minister, Valery Khaburzania, revealed that a Saudi and a Jordanian had been detained on suspicion of trying to establisha terrorist base in the Pankisi Gorge.

He also said militants from Chechnya and the Middle East were in the gorge. Mr Khaburzania said those detained were seeking "to create an illegal guerrilla group in the Pankisi Gorge and commit terrorist acts on Russian territory".

Russia's defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, voiced satisfaction that the Georgian author ities were now conceding there was a problem. "It is one thing to say something and another thing doing something," hesaid.

A Russian intelligence official said: "The Georgians are in a very difficult situation. They can't cope with this. And this filtration route has to be closed."

The Russians claim there are up to 2,000 fighters, mainly Chechens, in the gorge, and that they have two helicopters used to ferry men and material over the mountains into Chechnya.

An analysis this week from a US thinktank, the Central Asia Caucasus Institute, noted that the collapse of the Taliban could have a negative impact in Georgia.

The organisation said: "If illegal groups dealing with international terrorism, [the] narcotics trade and other forms of activities that shun government control are forced to leave Afghanistan and look for new countries with a weak government, Georgia may be an option.

"Georgia is the easiest country in the region for illegal business. The Pankisi Gorge is only one example of an area where armed formations control the situation without any influence from Tbilisi."

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Tbilisi in December and Mr Remler this week pledged a US military role in the region.

"We have elaborated a plan concerning the rendering of military support to the Ministry of Defence of Georgia," Mr Remler said. "Despite the fact that this assistance does not exactly cover the above field, we aim to create counter-terrorist forces within this ministry."


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