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Most Militants Now Out of Pankisi, says Shevardnadze - 2002-09-01

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says most of the militants in the lawless Pankisi gorge section of Georgia have been driven out. Only a "few dozen militants" are left in the Pankisi gorge after a military operation by Georgian troops to flush them out of the area, he said.

Russia has been pressuring Georgia to clean up the gorge. Moscow says separatists from the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya use the area as a base for operations in Chechnya and receive weapons through the gorge.

Last Sunday, Mr. Shevardnadze sent about 1,000 troops into the region to clean out militants believed to be living there.

At a weekend news conference, the Georgian leader said there were not only Chechen militants in the gorge but Arabs as well. But he said he did not know if any of them were connected with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The United States sent military advisors to Georgia earlier this year as a part of a plan to train the Georgian military to fight Islamic insurgents.

President Shevardnadze said the gorge would be cleared of what he described as "criminal elements" within a week. The Georgian leader said the Pankisi gorge would be turned into one of the most stable regions in Georgia.

Since the beginning of the second Russian campaign in Chechnya, the gorge has been a source of tension between Russia and Georgia.

Russia would like Georgia to allow Russian troops into the region to hunt for the rebels. But Tbilisi refuses, saying it is a Georgian problem and the Georgian military will handle it.

Russia has been fighting separatists in Chechnya since 1999. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said the war is over, but Chechen rebels often kill Russian soldiers in ambushes or mine explosions.