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Georgia's Dangerous Pankisi Gorge

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is filled with danger zones, but the Pankisi Gorge is considered one of the most hostile regions. Located in the northeastern part of the country, the Pankisi Gorge lies along the Georgian border with Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, where Russian troops have been fighting Chechen rebels since 1999. Georgian and Russian officials say a large part of the reason the gorge is so dangerous is that many of the rebels have slipped across the border into Georgia. VOA's Rebecca Santana recently traveled to the Georgian town of Akhmeta and filed this report.

This small town of Akhmeta is located about twenty kilometers from the Pankisi Gorge. The gorge used to be one of the most beautiful regions in Georgia, but now is more well known for kidnapping and murders.

Residents in Akhmeta say life near the gorge wasn't always so dangerous. They say the violence started in 1999, when the war in neighboring Chechnya heated up. The fighting sent about eight-thousand refugees fleeing across the porous mountain border into the gorge, along with bands of Chechen rebels. No one knows for sure how many rebels are there but estimates put the figure at around 300. People in Akhmeta say it these rebels who are now causing havoc in the Pankisi Gorge.

Nunu Donjashvili is a shopkeeper in Akhmeta. She accused the rebels of selling drugs, kidnapping and murder. "Everyone here wants them to leave, to go back where they belong," she said. "There was no reason for them to come here. We want them to leave."

That is also the feeling of the Georgian and the Russian governments; both agree the rebels pose a security threat to the region. But that is where the agreement between the two sides ends.

Moscow accuses Tbilisi of allowing the rebels to use the gorge as a base for attacks on Russian forces in Chechnya. It wants the Georgian government to allow Russian troops into the gorge to hunt the rebels down.

During an interview with VOA, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze acknowledged that there may be rebels in the gorge, but denied Georgia is helping the Chechen rebels in any way. "The Russians [charge] that we do not take all necessary measures to identify the Chechen militants here and to extradite them to Russia. But all that is kind of allegations, all that is verbal criticisms. They're not providing any evidence for that," he said.

Russia says there is another reason it wants to send its forces into the gorge. It believes al-Qaida terrorists from Afghanistan are now operating there. Last week, a senior U.S. diplomat in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, gave credence to those claims. In an interview with a Georgian newspaper, he said that fighters from Afghanistan were in the Pankisi gorge.

Mr. Shevardnadze told VOA that some of the people in the Pankisi Gorge were, as he described them, "foreign nationals," not from Chechnya, Russia or Georgia. But he said he had no information they were associated with Osama bin Laden, and he ruled out the possibility that Russian troops would be allowed onto Georgian soil to hunt them.

Mr. Shevardnadze added that Russia, instead of worrying about what is happening in the Pankisi Gorge, should concentrate on its own territory. "It would be wrong to assume that all the Chechens and all the Chechen militants are now in Georgian territory, in Pankisi, because there are only a few villages there," he said. "If there are any bin Laden associates, friends, colleagues or however we describe them, they're in the first place in Chechnya itself."

While Mr. Shevaradnadze made clear he didn't want any Russian involvement in Georgia, he is not opposed to all outside aid. He said the United States has offered to help Georgians deal with the problems in the Pankisi Gorge, but it hasn't been decided what form that help may take.

The Georgian president insists his government is doing all it can to bring the gorge under control. As an example, he said he recently dispatched troops to the region and said they are already responsible for a steep drop in crime.

But on Sunday, the day after Mr. Shevardnadze's interview with VOA, four police officers were taken hostage in the gorge. They were released on Tuesday, but for Moscow, it was yet another sign that the situation in the Pankisi Gorge is out of Georgia's control.