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Georgia Rejects Any Russian Intervention in Pankisi

11 July 2002 TBILISI, 11 July (Gazeta.Ru)--Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev and his fighters can stay in Georgia's Pankisi gorge [a region of Georgia bordering with Chechnya] for at least another few months without any worries. Russia's Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo on 10 July tried to persuade Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to allow Russian troops to enter the gorge, but Shevardnadze remained implacable. He only agreed to conduct a census among refugees, putting rebel fighters on a separate "black list."

As for Chechen and Arab fighters hiding on Georgian territory, Shevardnadze promised to sort things out before the year's end. Following the talks with Rushailo, Shevardnadze said that the ''Pankisi Gorge is a very critical issue'' and that ''Georgia is more concerned about it than Russia."

Shevardnadze's words may have been an allusion to Moscow's not-so-modest offer to render aid to Georgia by sending troops to the gorge.

Rumors about a possible joint operation in the Pankisi Gorge--with the participation of Russians, Georgians and possibly Americans from the team of Pentagon instructors sent to the country--spread shortly before Rushailo's visit to Georgia. Russia's military has long said that the Pankisi problem could be solved by force--to cordon off the entries to the 50-kilometer gorge both from the Russian and Georgian sides and to bombard the camps with artillery fire.

The Georgian authorities were unsurprisingly outraged at the suggestion. In his latest address to the nation on 8 July, Shevardnadze was especially harsh: ''No representative of any foreign state will take part in the operation planned in Pankisi,'' he said. ''And Russia's participation in the operation without the sanction of Georgia would be tantamount to open aggression,'' he added.

The same opinion was voiced by other Georgian officials, including Tedo Japaridze, the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council and State Security Minister Koba Narchemashvili.

However, the Georgian side gave some hints that it is about to start its own operation in the gorge. The first stage foresees to make lists of all the refugees living in Pankisi, separating insurgent fighters from the real refugees.

Apart from this partial agreement, Rushailo and Shevardnadze made another exchange of favors. The head of the Georgian Foreign Ministry, Irakliy Menagarishvili, announced on 10 July that the stay of the Russian peacekeeping force in [the Georgian breakaway region of] Abkhazia would be prolonged in its present form. However, the Georgian authorities have secured a promise that the CIS's Council of Foreign Ministers will begin to re-write the conditions of Russia's military presence in Abkhazia. Tbilisi insists that the peacekeepers leave the Georgian-Abkhazian border and go deeper into the Gali district where refugees could return to their houses.

Meanwhile, the drafting of a major framework agreement on friendship with Russia--suggested by Shevardnadze earlier--has started in Tbilisi. ''The diplomats have done their work well,'' Shevardnadze said. ''I think that this agreement will be completed in the near future and we will then sign the treaty in Moscow or in Tbilisi.'' Rushailo also praised the progress made in drafting the agreement.
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