- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

DUISI, Georgia Watching a bevy of fashion models slink and smile in the Pankisi Gorge, where the United States says al Qaeda-linked fighters are hiding, the security forces commander was even happier than a man usually is amid gorgeous women.
"If we can have a fashion show in Pankisi, it shows that everything is under control," said Georgi Shervashidze, head of Interior Ministry forces.
But watching from the sidelines, local resident Mariam Bilanishvili was disgusted.
"The government is doing nothing. We're all going to die here," the 56-year-old said.
The Sunday night show on a freezing field just outside Duisi, at the mouth of the gorge, wasn't a government program, but when couturier Maka Asatiani proposed the idea, officials eagerly got on board.
Scores of troops surrounded the runway and a crowd of hundreds gathered some of them, bearing Kalashnikov automatic rifles, accompanying the models as they posed and pouted, others manning machine-gun nests and warily scanning the surrounding hills for signs of attack.
Georgia had come under increasing criticism for ignoring the declining security in Pankisi, where thousands of people over the past two years have taken refuge from the war in Chechnya, on the other side of the gorge's towering snowy mountains. It long denied Russia's contention that Chechen fighters were among the refugees, even though residents said their presence was obvious.
"All the time you'd see men in long beards," unusual in Georgia, said Mrs. Bilanishvili. "It was obvious they were Wahabis," the Muslim sect to which some Chechen separatists adhere.
President Eduard Shevardnadze acknowledged last year that rebels were among the refugees. Concerns about security grew after U.S. officials said fighters connected with al Qaeda were in the gorge and authorized the dispatch of U.S. troops to provide anti-terrorist training for the Georgian military.


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