- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

TBILISI, Georgia (UPI) Georgia has become home to illegal immigrants from several Arab countries and Afghanistan who enter the country on fake passports and use it as a steppingstone to move farther into Europe, a top government official said yesterday.

Once in Georgia, the immigrants reportedly buy false Georgian passports, sold on the black market for up to $10,000 each, and leave the country heading west, State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzaniya said in remarks broadcast by Georgia's state-run television network.

A group of Afghan nationals who arrived from Armenia with fake Iranian passports were detained recently, he said. They planned to stay temporarily in Georgia before obtaining forged passports and continuing their Europe-bound journey, he said.

Mr. Khaburdzaniya failed to specify the number of the people detained, but said the group included a family with children, all traveling with false papers. He declined to give further details, saying the case was being investigated.

Georgian officials are investigating whether the detained travelers have any links with Afghan-based militant groups that the Bush administration suspects are resettling in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and other government officials have vehemently denied the charges, insisting the gorge is occupied by no members of al Qaeda the group behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

U.S. military analysts have identified Georgia as a location that could be used as a safe haven by Taliban militants fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition removed them from power last year.

Washington and Tbilisi have worked closely to set up an anti-terrorist training program for the Georgian military and have boosted exchange of intelligence information that could prove valuable in tracking down Afghan militants attempting to enter Georgia.

The State Security Ministry said several groups in Georgia are forging passports and visas. The prices range from $5,000 to $10,000 per passport depending on the traveler's destination.

Mr. Khaburdzaniya said yesterday there were more than Georgian citizens involved in making fake passports and visas.

"Foreign nationals, including staffers of some foreign diplomatic missions accredited in Tbilisi, have also been involved in it," he said.

Georgia's faltering economy has been on the verge of collapse since the tiny Caucasus nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Separatist movements in Georgia's autonomous provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have plunged the country into violence and civil war.

The quality of life has dropped as inflation and unemployment have skyrocketed, making the black market the only source of income for many Georgians.


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