- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

The United States brushed aside Russian skepticism yesterday and dispatched U.S. military advisers to help the former Soviet republic of Georgia fight guerrillas linked to al Qaeda.

Senior U.S. officials and Army officers met with Georgian leaders in the capital, Tbilisi, as Washington formally announced plans to open a new front in the war on terrorism. Up to 200 military advisers will be sent to train and equip anti-terrorist forces in the troubled Caucasus nation.

"As long as there is al Qaeda influence anywhere, we will help the host countries rout them out and bring them to justice," President Bush told reporters on a visit to Charlotte, N.C.

Asked whether he thought guerrillas in the rugged Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia were influenced by al Qaeda, Mr. Bush said, "I do."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher would not confirm the presence of al Qaeda operatives in Georgia, although he acknowledged potential links between the terrorist network and "foreign fighters" operating in the volatile country.

Russia had maintained that guerrillas from the breakaway republic of Chechnya were hiding in Georgia long before September 11, but the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze repeatedly dismissed the claim.

Yesterday, Mr. Boucher said that "some of the Chechen terrorists have links to al Qaeda, particularly in the form of training," and officials have "seen the presence of foreign fighters crossing in and out of Georgia."

"But I can't say that the people who have received training from al Qaeda have gone in and out of Georgia," he said.

Mr. Shevardnadze has been trying to diminish Russian influence in Georgia. Moscow yesterday said the presence of U.S. soldiers in Georgia could destabilize the region further.

"Regarding the possible deployment of U.S. military … this could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is already difficult," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told ORT public television in Moscow.

But Mr. Boucher rejected those charges, arguing that Washington's military assistance to Georgia would help stabilize the Caucasus region and make it more secure.

"We believe that Georgia's ability to handle these types of problems on its own is also in Russia's interest," he said.

He also noted that Moscow had been kept informed of the contacts between Washington and Tbilisi, including "our intentions and our plans for the train-and-equip program in Georgia."

Another senior State Department official said later that Russia never objected to the U.S. plans.

Lynn Pascoe, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, met yesterday in Tbilisi with Mr. Shevardnadze, a day after several U.S. military advisers arrived in Georgia to discuss the training plans.

Georgia would be Washington's third front in the anti-terrorism war, which started in Afghanistan in October and so far has expanded only to the Philippines, where U.S. forces are training the military and participating in exercises in Manila's battle against Muslim Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

At the Pentagon yesterday, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a U.S. military assessment team from Europe had visited Georgia.

"The fact of the matter is that as we help our friends increase their own security capabilities, we are helping in the global war on terrorism and against other terrorist threats that they may have," he said.

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