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Shevardnadze Visits Pankisi Gorge - 2002-08-27


Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has traveled to the country's Pankisi Gorge region to show his support for a military operation aimed at clearing the area of militants. The gorge is a source of controversy between Georgia and neighboring Russia.

President Shevardnadze started his visit to the Pankisi Gorge by attending the funeral of a man who Georgian officials say was killed in a Russian air strike on Georgian territory last Friday.

The Georgian president flew by helicopter to the village of Matani, where the funeral was being held.

After the service, Mr. Shevaradnadze spoke to hundreds of villagers and described the alleged Russian bombing as a tragedy.

Georgia has often accused Russia of bombing Georgian territory in its fight against separatists in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.

Moscow denies that it launched an air strike on Georgian territory when the man was killed. But Russia accuses Georgia of harboring Chechen terrorists in the Pankisi gorge.

The United States strongly criticized Russia for the alleged air strike.

Russia would like to send its own troops into the region to search for the rebels. But Georgia says it is handling the situation.

The issue became more heated a few days ago when Georgia decided to send about 1,000 troops into the gorge to root out militants.

Earlier this year, the United States sent military advisors to Georgia to train its military to fight Islamic insurgents who Washington believes may be hiding in the Pankisi gorge.

Russia has been fighting separatists in Chechnya since 1999. While Russia says it has the situation under control, Russian troops, civilians and Chechen separatists are killed almost every day.

Last week, a Russian military helicopter ferrying troops crashed in Chechnya, killing 118 people.

Russian media have reported that Chechen separatists shot down the helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, although Russian officials have strongly denied this.

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