- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia There are no obvious signs of danger in this fertile valley that the Bush administration says is a refuge for terrorists.
Under sunny skies, many of the 14,000 inhabitants plow muddy fields outside their two-story family farmhouses. Dozens of brown pigs rooting around wooden barns suggest a certain laxity in the inhabitants' Islamic beliefs in this former Soviet republic.
Yet this 10-mile-long patch of land, cradled between the Caucasus mountains that border Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, has a long history as a haven for smugglers and bandits.
U.S. authorities searching for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants have focused on the Pankisi Gorge as a place that Islamic extremists may hide, or pass through on their way to safer, more remote hide-outs. Volunteers from Muslim Chechnya were among the fighters serving the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
A few hundred U.S. military personnel are to arrive next month to train Georgian anti-terrorist squads, and the CIA has beefed up its relations with Georgian KGB officers developments that President Eduard Shevardnadze has welcomed.
However, questions remain about how real the terrorist threat is in Georgia, and whether Washington's offer of $60 million in aid is just old-fashioned diplomacy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has sought to stabilize this strategically important country.
Georgia, with a population of 5 million, is situated near vast Caspian Sea oil reserves as well as near Iraq and Iran, two of the three countries that President Bush labeled the "axis of evil."
In the last three or four months, some 30 Islamic fighters have arrived in the valley, crossing the border from neighboring Azerbaijan, according to Georgian intelligence officials. Otar Peterashvili, the agent in charge of surveillance of the Pankisi Gorge for six years, said the men have taken refuge with some of the region's known criminal kingpins, making them hard to extricate.
Mr. Peterashvili said he presumes the men are Arabs. But Georgian authorities do not have any evidence linking them to al Qaeda or the Taliban, and do not know where the men were before making the trek from Azerbaijan to the Pankisi Gorge.
"We haven't noticed an influx of foreigners since the war in Afghanistan began. We believe that the few people that are here aren't looking to stay in Georgia, but are on their way to someplace else, probably Chechnya," Mr. Peterashvili said, adding that he's given the same information to the CIA.
Still, the White House is moving ahead with plans to send U.S. Special Forces to train four army battalions in anti-terrorist operations, according to Georgia's deputy defense minister, Gela Bezhuashvili.
A team of U.S. military engineers numbering around 20 is currently in Georgia surveying the airstrip and other installations at one of two military bases where the Americans will work, the minister said.
Part of the aid will include equipment for about 2,000 Georgian soldiers to be trained, including uniforms, binoculars and tents, Mr. Bezhuashvili said.
"Our military is greatly underfunded and in need of training," Mr. Bezhuashvili said. "Our country needs a small, efficient, mobile army that can protect our territorial integrity. We are very glad that the Americans are going to help us do that."
Georgia, a centuries-old, predominately Christian country, has had its share of difficulties since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the last 10 years, Georgians have fought a bitter civil war that has left two provinces virtually autonomous from the central government in Tbilisi. Widespread corruption has made the central government ineffectual in many other regions.
Electricity throughout the country is spotty, unemployment is in the double digits and hospitals are in disrepair. These problems led thousands of people in December to demonstrate against Mr. Shevardnadze, who was the Soviet foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev before becoming Georgia's leader a decade ago.
Many analysts in Georgia believe the policy to bring in American forces is aimed at raising the stature of the ailing and unpopular president.
"We are all glad to see the Americans come here, but we are all asking, 'What will Georgia get out it?'" said Georgi Khutsishvili, director of Tbilisi's International Center on Conflict and Negotiation. "American military advisers are not going to help us fight corruption. They are not going to help strengthen law and order. They are only going to help Shevardnadze consolidate his power."

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