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Georgia to Begin Military Exercises in Pankisi Gorge - 2002-08-25

Large-scale military exercises are scheduled in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. The exercises begin a day after the United States accused Russia of inflaming tensions with the former Soviet Republic.

Georgia has no radar equipment to track planes in the volatile Pankisi Gorge area and so relies heavily on visual accounts to prove its claims of cross-border raids.

Russia disputes such evidence and says its planes have not conducted any such raids. But on Saturday, the White House accused Russia of inflaming tensions with Georgia by indiscriminately bombing villages in the Pankisi Gorge region.

Georgia said one person was killed and seven others wounded in the attack on Friday.

Relations between the two nations have hit new lows in the past week, as Russian officials accused Georgia of turning a blind eye to Chechen rebels Moscow believes are hiding in the gorge, which borders breakaway Chechnya. Russia has demanded, without success, that Georgia extradite the rebels to Moscow.

The Pankisi Gorge area also is of great interest to American officials, who believe it is a refuge for Islamic militants who may be planning terrorist attacks.

U.S. special forces have been training Georgian forces since May to take on potential terrorists in the gorge. But Georgia has refused other outside help, vowing to solve the Pankisi Gorge issue itself.

The military exercises are but one step toward bringing the area under better control, and will take place in parallel with operations by Georgian police and special forces.

The exercises are expected to last two to three weeks.