- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

TBILISI, Georgia Georgian intelligence officials say they are growing alarmed at the existence of Islamic extremists who operate recruitment and training centers in the Georgian region of Abkhazia, a territory that staged a bloody breakaway in 1992 with Russian support.

The goals of the Vahabists, as members of the Islamic sect are known, are not clear.

But adherents practice a variant of Islam that condones the killing of non-Vahabist Muslims, scholars say, and their presence on the Black Sea coast is sparking fears of terrorism.

The radical group was founded in the 18th century by Mohammed Bin Abd Vahhab in Arabia.

Valeri Khaburzania, Georgia's minister of state security, told The Washington Times: "There are up to 200 Vahabists in Abkhazia. They are Abkhazians, Chechens and Arabs. They have training centers where they show recruits how 'Warriors of Allah' are fighting, including women. They are using videocassette training films.

"The fundamentalists have established a mosque that differs in form and substance from other mosques," Mr. Khaburzania said.

Georgian officials have yet to disclose any evidence that the training camps are grooming terrorists who might strike at Christian-majority Georgia.

But relations between Abkhazia and Georgia remain tense, despite a Russian- and U.N.-brokered cease-fire. Adding to the tension are reports of pockets of al Qaeda members in neighboring Chechnya.

Lt. Gen. Avtandil Ioseliani, chairman of Georgia's State Department of Intelligence, said: "One of the leaders of the Vahabists who is involved in recruiting and training in Abkhazia is Raki Gitsba. There is one training center in the Gudauta region, near the village of Duripshi, in northwestern Abkhazia.

"A second is in the village of Pskhu, in the extreme northern part of Abkhazia, not far from the Russian border."

A high-level source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Raki Gitsba's father, Rauf, is a head of the Vahabists' mosque in the coastal city of Gudauta. Both father and son together head up an irregular military unit.

"Raki Gitsba is a member of an Ankara-based Turkish Islamic-Shi'ite terrorist organization. During the Abkhazian-Georgian War, Gitsba was recruiting volunteers in Chechnya and the Middle East," the source said.

Gen. Ioseliani warned that Georgia was especially vulnerable to attack from the Black Sea.

"Gitsba has close contacts with Islamic fundamentalists who are Arabs, Turks and North Caucasian Muslims. Our Black Sea coast off of Abkhazia is not protected. Georgia can't control the people and the cargo coming in on ships there," Gen. Ioseliani said.

"Another terrorist who has been active in Abkhazia is Mehmet Topchan," said Gen. Ioseliani.

According to another source who asked not to be identified: "Topchan masterminded the hijacking of the ship Avrasia with 200 passengers on board, in the Turkish port of Trabzon in January 1996. He later escaped from a Turkish prison and fled to Abkhazia, where he is known by the name of Topchua."

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