The top US diplomat in Georgia says Islamic radical fighters from Afghanistan are now active in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. The revelation increases the pressure on the Georgian government to reestablish its authority in the crime-ridden region. The disclosure also indicates that the United States is laying the groundwork for possible anti-terrorism operations in the Caucasian republic.
The US charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, said in a February 11 interview with a Georgian weekly that several dozen Afghan fighters with links to Osama bin Laden had found their way to Georgia. Georgian officials admit that suspected terrorists from Saudi Arabia and Jordan may be in the Pankisi Gorge, striving to establish a base of operations. In recent years, the region, which borders Chechnya, has developed a reputation from lawlessness, and has emerged as a safe haven utilized by Chechen separatists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
The Pankisi Gorge's chaotic environment provides an ideal operating environment for Islamic radicals. Georgian security forces launched a crack down in late January. Nevertheless, the government's ability to exert control over the region remains tenuous at best.
Remler indicated that the United States was ready to provide military assistance to Georgia to promote the reestablishment of order. Specifically, he indicated that that the United States would work with Georgian Defense Ministry officials to establish an anti-terrorism force. Remler declined a request from a EurasiaNet contributor to elaborate on his newspaper remarks.
Instability in the Pankisi region has been a primary source of tension between Russia and Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Moscow has long exerted pressure on Tbilisi to contain Chechen separatist activities on Georgian soil. Last fall, some Russian officials even threatened military intervention following the disclosure that Chechen fighters had joined forces with Georgian nationalist guerrillas in staging attacks in Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
On February 14, a Russian delegation flew to Tbilisi for talks aimed at speeding the return of approximately 7,000 Chechen refugees in Georgia, according to the Interfax news agency. The repatriation of Chechens, some in Moscow claim, would enhance security in the Pankisi region. Human rights advocates, however, question whether Russia can adequately guarantee the refugees' basic rights if they return.
During a February 9 cabinet session, Georgian Security minister Valeri Khaburdzania stated that several Saudi and Jordanian citizens had been captured in the Pankisi Gorge, where they were allegedly planning attacks at targets in Russia. Security officials in Russia have demanded that Georgia share any information obtained from the detained Saudi and Jordanian terrorist suspects.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, a representative of the Chechen separatist movement Khizri Aldamov was dismissive of the report that Afghan nationals had infiltrated the Pankisi region. "We did not invite anybody to come and fight our battles. I was in Chechnya and did not see anyone from other [lands] there," Aldamov claimed. "Even if such fighters do exist, it means that our purpose is just."
Aldamov complained that Remler's comments were "helping the Russians" in their attempt to crush the Chechen separatist movement. The motivation for Remler's statement remains open to debate. What is certain is that concern is growing in Washington that the chronic disorder afflicting Georgia could lead to the creation of a new terrorist haven.
The Kavkaz-Tsentr web site, which is aligned with the Chechen separatist cause, suggested Remler's statements were tied to a brewing US-Russian rivalry in Georgia. "The USA is trying to grab the initiative from Moscow and declare itself the only country capable of 'helping' Georgia establish order," said a February 14 commentary on the web site.
This article was reported by Jeffrey Silverman, a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.