- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia A Georgian official said yesterday that troops taking part in an operation to round up Chechen fighters in the Pankisi Gorge, on Georgia's border with Russia, were under orders not to arrest any of the guerrillas.

"The fighters are Russia's problem," said a high-ranking official in Georgia's National Security Ministry who is taking part in the operation.

The official, who did not want to be identified, said Georgian commanders knew the location of a band of Chechen fighters but had no plans to engage them.

He said the Chechen group was in the village of Tsinaubani, at the southern end of the gorge. Local residents said the band was led by seasoned Chechen field commanders known as the Akhmadov brothers.

"We have deliberately avoided and are now avoiding armed conflict with them. We do not intend to start a war with them and put at risk our troops and thousands of innocent people. We are already doing enough," the official said.

A local policemen said the authorities had made contact with the Chechens and given them an ultimatum to leave or face being removed by force.

The acknowledgment came on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed doubts that the Georgian troops would be able to track down the Chechen fighters without help from Russian forces.

"Recently, Georgia has itself begun attempting to get rid of the Chechen terrorists who are based on its territory," Mr. Putin said. "[But] without the active support of Russia we will just continue chasing the terrorists from corner to corner."

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze sent more than 1,000 troops into the mountainous region over the weekend under pressure from Moscow, which says the area is being used as a hide-out by separatist fighters from Chechnya.

Now in its fourth day, the highly publicized operation has thus far failed to arrest or even locate a single Chechen rebel in Pankisi, which neighbors the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya.

Officially, Georgian security chiefs insist the operation is still on track.

"It was not part of our plans to start arresting people from the first day. This operation is a long process so there will be arrests," State Security Minister Valery Khaburzaniya said in an interview.

But he also said the operation's aim was only to clear out Chechen fighters from Pankisi, and not to police the border with Chechnya. "The Russian border troops and special forces can do that themselves."

The dispute between Russia and Georgia over Pankisi has threatened to balloon into all-out war between the two countries in recent weeks.

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