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Georgia Pledges to Resolve Tensions in Pankisi Gorge Region - 2002-08-05

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says his country is ready to work with Russia in combating terrorist activities. The Georgian president has vowed to resolve the tense situation in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region in the next four to six weeks.

President Shevardnadze stood firm in his opposition to the launching of any type of military operation in the gorge, which borders Chechnya. He says innocent civilians could suffer unnecessarily.

But President Shevardnadze, who in the past has declined to admit there are any problems in the Pankisi Gorge, also said his country would extradite detainees who are found to be criminals or terrorists. Mr. Shevardnadze called for Russia to first prove there is reason to suspect the detainees of committing serious crimes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has strongly urged Georgia to hand over seven armed Chechens who were detained near the border during the weekend.

Speaking to Russian government leaders in Moscow, President Putin welcomed his Georgian counterpart's announcement with reservation. President Putin said Russia had heard offers of cooperation before from Georgia and will judge the seriousness of this claim, as he put it, by how quickly the detainees end up in Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov accused Georgia of failing to live up to its obligation to fight terrorism. Mr. Ivanov also suggested Russia might ask the international community to take action, if Georgia failed to get tough with the rebels.

President Shevardnadze blames Russia, in part, for the tensions in the Pankisi Gorge, saying the rebels are coming from Chechnya because of fighting between Russian troops and Chechen separatist rebels.

U.S. officials have long said fighters linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network may be hiding in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, planning terrorist operations. At Georgia's invitation, American military instructors are now providing anti-terrorist training to Georgia's troops.