- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia At the entrance to the Pankisi Gorge, the Georgian army stands guard.

Beyond the checkpoint and sandwiched between the tall Caucasus Mountains lies a beautiful but rough region of eastern Georgia that its neighbor, Russia, says is both haven and training ground for Chechen guerrillas.

Indeed, the Kremlin has long complained that the Pankisi is a hide-out of terrorists and drug traffickers. Georgia, a former Soviet republic, rejects the assertions.

Stuck in the middle and more so since September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks against the United States put this mountain-rimmed pocket on the map of potential al Qaeda hide-outs are the Pankisi's five small villages all 7,000 inhabitants of which are Khists, ethnic Chechens who have lived here for hundreds of years.

Their numbers in the past three years have swelled by another 3,000 or so refugees, mostly women and children trying to escape the war in neighboring Chechnya, where Russia has been trying to put down a Muslim separatist revolt.

Last spring, the United States sent military instructors and Special Forces troops to train the Georgian army in anti-terrorist operations. At the same time, the government in Tbilisi brought Georgian troops into the Pankisi Gorge.

Seated on battered tanks, looking scruffy and bored, the Georgian soldiers who spoke to UPI are part of the 1,000-man force in charge of the anti-criminal and anti-terrorist operation sent to bring order to the region. Capt. Zaza Kavtaradze says the Pankisi operation has been a success.

"When we came three months ago there were certainly terrorists here, but now there are only peaceful refugees and maybe some criminals," said Capt. Kavtaradze. "We are monitoring the checkpoints, looking out and making sure no one gets in. We are also participating in the anti-criminal operation inside the Gorge."

American military instructors, who are training Georgian soldiers outside Tbilisi, have played no role in the Pankisi Gorge operations, said Valeri Khaburdzania, Georgia's minister of state security.

Nor will there be any need for the U.S.-trained Georgians, he added.

"We think that by the time that those battalions are trained by the Americans, there will be no need to bring them to Pankisi. Unfortunately there will probably be other [hot spots] in Georgia, and the soldiers won't be left without work," Mr. Khaburdzania said.

"Also, two pipelines Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa and soon Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan will be coming through Georgian territory, and in order to keep these pipelines protected we will need a trained and well-prepared army," the minister said. "As far as the Pankisi operation is concerned, it is nearly over and we will be finished very soon."

Mr. Khaburdzania said the Georgian army will now focus solely on ridding the area of the drug traffickers and criminals that are said to flourish here. Every day soldiers conduct more house searches and make more arrests. Among those captured have been Arab men, though any links to al Qaeda remain to be proved.

Moscow remains unconvinced, however.

President Vladimir Putin and others in his government have threatened Georgia with military action and say Tbilisi is incapable of solving "the Pankisi problem."

The Georgian government responds that at the heart of the problem is Russia's own failure to conclude the Chechen war and guard its borders.

"We are solving the problem of our own state. We cannot solve Russian problem," Mr. Khaburdzania told UPI. "For some reason, we are asked to solve Russia's problems on our territory.

"It does not work like this. If Russia wants to solve the Pankisi problem, they need to end the war in Chechnya. And once the war is over, within two hours the problem of the Pankisi Gorge will disappear," the Georgian minister said.

As the accusations by Tbilisi and Moscow fly back and forth, residents of the Pankisi Gorge live in fear, and many of the Chechen refugees there say they want to move again.

"People in the Pankisi are asking for a third country. We have no other choice. As long as Russians are in Chechnya, we can't return there, and it is becoming dangerous for us here, too," said one refugee, a 30-year-old Chechen woman.

"It's terrible," she added. "Georgia is the only country that accepted us, and now, because of us, the relationship has become so tense."

Distinguishing predominantly Muslim Pankisi from surrounding villages that are overwhelmingly Christian are the mosques. The mosques contrast with the modest dwellings of the Pankisi residents. All the mosques were erected in recent years by the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam, which prevails in Saudi Arabia and of which most Chechen fighters are also members.

But while Islam has a heavy presence here, residents insist there are no fighters left here. Near one of these mosques, Marina Margoshvili, 28, a Pankisi resident, told UPI: "There are plenty of refugees [from Chechnya, in Russia] here, and of course there are young men among them. And these young men have no prospect of returning to Chechnya, because being young, male and Chechen is like a death sentence in Russia. But they are not fighters," she insisted.

Miss Margoshvili was born in the Pankisi Gorge but spent most of her life in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. In 1999, she walked across the border from the war-wrecked Russian region. Her voice trembled as she explained why she no longer feels safe in her home village.

"We are very scared. We don't sleep at night. I know what it's like, I've seen it all myself. Russians were killing us, even babies in cradles. I've seen them kill babies in cradles. The worst thing is if they now come here and start bombing here," she said. "If we need to die, let Georgians kill us just not Russians again."

Others echo Miss Margoshvili's fears.

"Anything but Russians" is a common sentiment among people here, many of whom say they have experienced firsthand atrocities by the Russian army in Chechnya. Consequently, they welcome the presence of the Georgian soldiers and say it has made a difference.

Residents of nearby villages say that only a few months ago, grenades and automatic rifles were normal accessories of every Pankisi male. Today, at least outdoors, the only ones with weapons belong to the Georgian army.

"We do not deny that there were fighters here," said Mr. Khaburdzania, Georgia's minister of state security. "I was the first one to say that Gelaev [a senior Chechen commander] was here. But they have all left," he insisted.

However, while Georgia says the "anti-terrorist" part of the Pankisi Gorge operation is over and it has done all it could to chase the fighters out, no one can tell where they have gone.

Between the last village in the Gorge and the Chechen border lies 40 miles of craggy terrain, difficult to reach and impossible to monitor. Georgia fears that this alone might be enough of a reason for Russia to start bombing in the Pankisi Gorge.

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