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Shevardnadze Downplays Tensions between Georgia and Russia - 2002-08-26

As Georgian troops moved into the Pankisi gorge in search of militants, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze downplayed differences between Georgia and neighboring Russia.

President Shevardnadze vowed his government would wipe out any criminal elements in the Pankisi Gorge, and he warned any militants in the region to leave.

The first of 1,000 Georgian troops moved into the region Sunday. Georgia earlier blamed Russia for an air strike in the gorge on Friday that killed at least one person.

However, President Shevardnadze said while Russia was to blame for the strike, he found it hard to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to it.

Mr. Shevardnadze said the air strike could have been thought up by people in the Russian military without the approval of President Putin.

The Georgian president also played down reports that Georgia might withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of former Soviet republics. After Friday's air strike, many Georgian politicians suggested that as a sign of retaliation, Georgia should withdraw from the organization, which is dominated by Russia.

Mr. Shevardnadze said leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States would not be a solution to the current problem.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have deteriorated since the beginning of the second Russian-led campaign in Chechnya.

Russian troops have been battling separatists in Chechnya, a Russian republic that borders the Pankisi gorge in Georgia.

Moscow has long accused Georiga of harboring Chechen separatists in the gorge, and would like to be able to send Russian troops into the region to root out the rebels.

Georgia has refused the offer and says it can deal with the problem on its own. Earlier this year, the United States sent military advisors to Georgia to train Georgian troops how to battle the militants.