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Georgia, Russia and US to Hold Talks on Pankisi Gorge - 2002-09-20

A senior Georgian official says his government, Russia and the United States will hold talks about the Pankisi Gorge section of Georgia, an area that Russia says has been used as a refuge by Chechen rebels. The gorge has been at the center of an escalating dispute between Russia and Georgia.

Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said in an interview with Georgia's Rustavi-2 television that the United States proposed the talks. The goal is to reduce tension sparked by Chechen rebels, who Russia says use the gorge as a base for attacks against Russia.

Mr. Menagarishvili's comments came after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov restated Moscow's claim that it can strike Georgian territory in self-defense. In addition, the Russian parliament also began drawing up legislation that would allow Russia to send troops into Georgia to fight Chechen rebels.

In recent weeks, tensions over the Pankisi gorge have increased. The gorge lies in Georgia and borders the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Moscow claims Georgia is harboring Chechen rebels in the gorge, rebels who have attacked Russia and will do so again if not stopped.

Georgia says it is dealing with the problem and recently sent one thousand troops into the region to hunt for rebels. During a tour of the gorge Thursday, the Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili described the operation as successful and said troops had already regained control of three villages in the gorge.

Archil Gegeshidze is an analyst with the Tbilisi-based Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He says Georgia is worried about recent Russian announcements that it may use military force in Georgian territory. "They are perceived to be attempts or practically an aggression against Georgia," he said. "And this is also seen as a part of a larger scenario of [an] attempt [at] destabilizing Georgia."

Mr. Gegeshidze says Georgia is looking to the United States for help. So far there has been no reaction from the Russian side on the possible talks.