- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

TBILISI, Georgia A separatist Georgian province with close ties to Moscow has become a haven for terrorists, Georgian Minister of State Security Valery Khaburzania said in an interview.

The Pentagon last week announced a sharp increase in U.S. military aid and training to Georgia, primarily to combat Islamic terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden believed to be hiding in the remote Pankisi Gorge bordering Chechnya.

Mr. Khaburzania's comments highlighted fears that the expansion of the global war on terrorism could draw the United States into long-simmering local disputes and regional rivalries.

Abkhazia, a primarily Muslim region on the Black Sea coast that has established its own government in defiance of Tbilisi, "is sheltering terrorists," Mr. Khaburzania contended in an interview with The Washington Times here over the weekend.

"The world is looking at Pankisi Gorge, but the same situation applies in Abkhazia," he said. "Pankisi Gorge is a closed area, and not as attractive for terrorists as Abkhazia, which is open to the sea."

Mr. Khaburzania accused unnamed Russian officials of exploiting the U.S. announcement to boost their own ties to Abkhaz rebels and destabilize the government of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

"The Russian government and mass media launched an information war against Georgia," according to Mr. Khaburzania.

Said another senior Georgian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity: "Russia is hysterical. It is a hangover from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There is a U.S. [military] presence there and they are not anxious to have a U.S. presence in Georgia."

The Bush administration announced Feb. 28 that it would be sending as many as 200 military advisers to train approximately 1,500 Georgian troops in counterterrorism tactics.

Otar Shalikashvili, an adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, will visit with Georgian military leaders to discuss cooperation in the anti-terror fight. U.S. military advisers will be housed in Georgian military barracks, a Georgian defense official said.

Mr. Shalikashvili, a brother of former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili, said in a telephone interview he did not know the exact dates of his trip.

"I think the military training will be of great assistance to Georgia," said Mr. Shalikashvili, who is of Georgian descent.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday called the U.S. move "no tragedy" for Russia, emotions were running high in the Russian legislature and the press against the move, in a region long seen by Moscow as part of its natural sphere of influence.

Although Georgia gained its independence with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia still maintains military bases in the country and peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia.

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