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Georgia Turns Down Russian Troop Offer - 2002-08-29

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has turned down an offer by Moscow to send Russian troops to the lawless Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia to hunt down Chechen militants. The gorge has become an increasing source of tension between Georgia and Russia.

The Georgian leader said the situation in the Pankisi Gorge would be resolved using Georgian forces and Georgian forces only. He added that the Pankisi gorge would become one of the country's most stable regions.

Mr. Shevardnadze was speaking at a ceremony marking the beginning of the latest segment of a U.S.- funded training program for Georgian troops.

The U.S. program is designed to train Georgian soldiers to fight Islamic insurgents that Washington believes are hiding in the Pankisi gorge.

The gorge has been a point of growing controversy between Georgia and Russia, because it borders the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.

Last week, Georgia accused Russia of bombing alleged Chechen rebel bases located in the Pankisi gorge and killing one Georgian citizen. President Shevardnadze then sent about 1,000 Georgian troops into the gorge to search for militants. None have been found so far.

Russia denies it bombed Georgian territory, but accuses Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels in the gorge. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday likened the militants in the Pankisi gorge to al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan.

He said the militants presence in the gorge is inflicting "real damage on Russia."

The Russian president also called for Georgia to allow Russian forces into the gorge for a joint exercise to root out the Chechen rebels, a request Georgia has repeatedly turned down.

Tensions between Georgia and Russia have long been tense, but with the beginning of the second Russian military campaign in Chechnya, relations deteriorated further.

While Moscow says the war in Chechnya is over, Russian soldiers die almost daily in rebel ambushes or mine explosions.