Flashing War Signals from Volatile Pankisi Gorge

The ingredients for an explosion have been there since early 2000, when some 7,000 Chechens, women, children, injured fighters and armed guerrillas took shelter in the Pankisi Gorge from the travails of their brutal secessionist war against Russia.

The figure is at issue: Russia claims they included 2000 armed men; Georgia – only 500. In terms of national boundaries, the insurgents crossed from Russia into a 36-square mile patch of mountainous rock – every inch of it lawless – that epitomizes the Georgian government’s lax control of its territory. Not all the fugitives stayed there; some moved on. And not all were Chechens; among them were Islamic extremists, members or associates of the al Qaeda network from the Middle East and other places who fought the Russians alongside the homegrown rebels – including a strong Saudi element, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter- terror sources.

In Pankisi, the Muslim Chechens enjoy a home from home. Since 1998, Saudi Wahhabist fundamentalists have been pouring funds and building schools, religious centers and a mosque to overlay the sparse native culture. These groups manage to co-exist with the criminal elements who also call Pankisi home. The territory’s criminalization, enhanced by weak law enforcement from Tiblisi, has made it a lawless enclave virtually inaccessible to outsiders. In Pankisi, Chechen guerrillas, drug traffickers, illegal arms dealers, bandits and Islamic militiamen commingle easily with al Qaeda elements who dabble in all these trades.

Moscow has repeatedly accused the Georgian government headed by Edouard Shevardnadze of harboring the Chechen rebels and tolerating their training camps in the Pankisi Gorge. Yet the signs in the last two weeks, revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, of small groups of armed Chechen guerrillas taking advantage of the summer weather to traverse the mountain routes and return to their embattled home territory infuriate the Russians. Clashes have flared between returnees and Russian border patrols – in which some Chechens were killed; the first skirmishes have erupted in Chechnya war zones, presaging a revival of the war.

Once again, Moscow accuses the Georgian government of spinelessness in failing to keep the Chechen return movement under control. The Georgians throw up their hands and deny guilt. However, Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov said in a press interview on Aug. 11 that some of the returning Chechen fighters were picked up carrying official Georgian refugee permits; Tiblisi is not as blameless as it claims.

Moscow says if the Georgians cannot keep the lid on the Pankisi Gorge, then Russian troops will come in to do the job. To show they are in earnest, the Russians have set up a Pankisi Force of special units based on Russia’s 58th Army (Chechen expeditionary force).

Georgia, plagued since independence more than a decade ago with perennial civil war and secessionist conflicts, disclaims responsibility. Instead, the Shevarnadze government accuses Russia of encouraging breakaway Abkhazia’s revived aggressiveness, which has been vented since late July at about the same time as the Chechen infiltrations began. The Abkhazians have been threatening to shoot down any Georgian aircraft breaching their airspace and carrying out hostile cross-border incursions. The Georgians are prevented from keeping the restive Abkhazians in line by the presence of Russian peacekeepers as a buffer force.

To help the Georgians hold down at least one corner of their breakaway components, several hundred US military personnel arrived in Tiblisi last February to set up and train an elite Georgian anti-terrorist unit, mainly for the Pankisi Gorge. They came on what was described as a modest train-and-equip mission for six months at the request of president Shevardnadze. US troops now control the military section of Tiblisi’s international airport.

Moscow was not overjoyed by the American military’s leap into the cauldron, but has since accepted it. After all, the two powers are dedicated to fighting terrorism, although their definitions do not always coincide, and both see the Pankisi crisis through an anti-terror prism, though not always the same one.

Both now have bases in Georgia.

The American presence appears to have acted as an unneeded catalyst. The two Caucasian conflicts are bubbling furiously, threatening to boil over into war.

A sideshow playing itself out in Pankisi has become an irritant in the Moscow-Washington partnership. A self-appointed Chechen chieftain called Ruslan Gelayev is reported by Russian intelligence to be brutally suppressing those of his fellow separatists who refuse to knuckle under to his authority while at the same time waging a war against the armed Arabs among the Chechens. Some sources in Moscow say he is being paid by American or other Western sources to hunt down and hand over al Qaeda fighters with the blessing of the Georgian government, while at the same time purging the ranks of dissidents.

The Russian government, which feels that the American involvement threatens to alter the delicate regional balance to Moscow’s detriment, nonetheless hopes it will help the government in Tiblisi purge the Pankisi Gorge of separatists, international terrorists and criminals.

However, the Russians will not tolerate the notorious Gelayev in the picture. His persecution of the Arab terrorists is pushing them back into Chechnya, fully armed and ready for battle. Their numbers are not great, but enough to be a nuisance.

That is not the only black mark against the Chechen. His checkered past includes two prison sentences in Russia for such criminal pursuits as kidnapping women for prostitution. According to the Russians, he was involved in the first Abkhazian secessionist war against Georgia in 1992, after which the separatist Chechen president Dudayev appointed him regimental commander in the rebel army. Russia believes resentfully that the Georgians hired him since to train professional soldiers to fight against part-Muslim, part-Christian Abkhazia, whose secession poses a far greater threat to Georgia than the Pankisi issue.

Georgia has never accepted Abkhazia’s declaration of independence in 1993, a declaration not internationally recognized either. Last October, a group of Chechen fighters arrived from the Pankisi Gorge to the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, confronting Russia with a dual Chechen front from Georgian territory. In contrast to the Chechens, the Abkhazians are eager for integration in Russia, which supports their economy, has opened their shared border and has begun issuing them with Russian citizenship papers. Only 18 percent of the breakaway republic’s population is native; the rest are Russians or belong to other ethnic groups.

The Sheverdnaze regime finds Russian acceptance of the Abkhaz secessionists insupportable. He fears that an Abkhaz success will encourage Christian South Ossetia to rise up against Georgia, and join North Ossetia in the Russia Federation. Shevernadze cannot let the Abkhazians get away with it, lest other parts of the Georgian republic peel away.

The Abkhaz crisis approaches danger point as Georgia pumps forces into the strategic Kodori Gorge. War in Abkhazia could precipitate the first Georgian clash with the Russian peacekeepers on the Georgian-Abkhaz border.

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