- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

From combined dispatches
MOSCOW The United States yesterday "deplored" Russian aerial raids on Georgia, even as the crisis between the two former Soviet states deepened with Moscow's charge that Tbilisi is adopting soft tactics against Chechen rebels on its territory.
The United States is "deeply concerned" over "credible" reports that Russia on Friday carried out air attacks in Georgia and killed civilians, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a prepared statement yesterday.
"The United States regrets this loss of life and deplores the violation of Georgia's sovereignty," Mr. Fleischer said in New Mexico, where President Bush was attending a fund-raiser.
In Moscow, a toughly worded Russian Foreign Ministry statement poured scorn on the Georgian authorities' tactics of "peacefully squeezing" guerrillas in Georgia's wild Pankisi Gorge.
"The terrorists must be cut off, disarmed and handed over to the Russian side," it said.
The gorge lies across the border from Russia's rebel region of Chechnya, where Russian troops have been battling separatist guerrillas on and off for most of the past eight years.
Tension mounted further with Russian reports late yesterday that the bodies of eight Russian border guards had been found near the joint border with Georgia.
Russian news agencies quoted the Federal Border Guard Service as saying the bodies of eight of their men, all from the same unit, had been found at an undisclosed spot on the border with Georgia, which lies on Russia's southern rim.
Interfax news agency said the bodies of the men had been found after their unit had failed to make radio contact yesterday and a search had begun.
It was not immediately clear how they had died nor where on the border they had been deployed. Two other members of the same unit were missing, Interfax said.
Georgia, which regularly criticizes Russia for bombing raids over the border, said one man had been killed and seven persons wounded in the Russian aerial attack, which it said was carried out at dawn.
The Russian military denied any such raid had happened, but an unidentified U.S. official in Washington said it had been confirmed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The security situation in Pankisi Gorge is equally of interest to the United States because of Washington's suspicions that it is a refuge for militant Islamists.
To counter pressure from its big northern neighbor, Georgia persuaded the United States to send military trainers as part of a multimillion-dollar program to upgrade Georgia's ragged armed forces.
U.S.-trained Georgian troops are scheduled to conduct large-scale war games in the Akhmeta region close to the gorge today in parallel with operations by police and special forces in the gorge.
In Chechnya, Russian forces were said to be continuing special operations to root out a large group of guerrillas in the village of Galsan-Chu in the Nozhai-Yurt region.
ITAR-Tass quoted Boris Podoprigora, deputy commander of Russia's forces in Chechnya, as saying that, after an operation already lasting four days, half of the 50-rebel force had been wiped out.
Other special operations were carried out in the Kurchaloi and Achkhoi-Martan regions, the agency said. None of these reports could be independently confirmed.
Feeling has been running high among the Russian military in Chechnya since the crash there on Monday of an overcrowded helicopter troop carrier that killed 116 Russian servicemen.

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