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Georgia, Russia Agree on Joint Action in Pankisi Gorge - 2002-09-06

Russia and Georgia have agreed on joint action to flush out suspected Chechen rebels operating in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. The agreement comes as a surprise, after several weeks of rising tensions between the two nations.

The agreement calls for Russian and Georgian Interior Ministry personnel to conduct sweeps inside the gorge, which borders Russia's breakaway Republic of Chechnya.

Details are sketchy, but Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov says the agreement was reached during a meeting of interior ministers from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Baku on Friday.

The announcement is a stark reversal of Georgia's long refusal to give Russia any role in maintaining order in the Pankisi Gorge.

Georgia has always said the matter is an internal concern and has even accused Russia of causing the problems by launching its second military campaign in Chechnya.

Russia, in turn, has long accused Georgia of taking no action to deal with Chechen rebels it claims are launching raids into Chechnya and Dagestan from the gorge.

The Russian interior minister did not say how many people would take part in the joint operations, nor when they would begin. But he did say that the Georgian side would arrest any suspected rebels.

Russia has been pressing hard for Georgia to immediately extradite suspected terrorists, and the two sides have exchanged increasingly harsh words over the matter in recent days.

The announcement of joint operations is also unusual in that it follows by just a few hours a Russian Foreign Ministry statement criticizing Georgia's lack of control in the gorge. The statement says Georgia's nearly two-week-old campaign to rid the gorge of rebels has not yielded any substantial results.

Russia has long said it could clear up the problem, if only it were allowed access. But Georgia has only agreed to the presence of U.S. troops, who are training and equipping Georgian soldiers.

The United States has expressed concern about the lack of authority in the gorge and believes some militants linked to Afghanistan's al-Qaida terrorist network may be operating there.