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Putin Accuses Georgia of Harboring Terrorists - 2002-09-12

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a message to world leaders accusing neighboring Georgia of harboring terrorists who have attacked Russia. The Russian leader says his country is willing to use military force to defend itself from the terrorist threat.

In a letter to world leaders, the Russian leader outlined his case. He said Tbilisi is harboring Chechen terrorists in the Pankisi gorge region of Georgia who have launched attacks on Russian soil.

President Putin said Georgia must take concrete actions to destroy the terrorists. If not, he said Russia would take adequate measures to counteract the terrorist threat, in strict accordance with international law.

The letter was sent to the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, members of the U.N. Security Council and members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In Tbilisi, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze described Mr. Putin's announcement as hasty and called a special meeting of his cabinet to discuss the issue.

Mr. Shevardnadze said if Russia attacks Georgia, the world will be asking why. The Georgian leaders said the truth is on Georgia's side but he was sure the two countries could find a common language to discuss the problem.

In Russia, Mr. Putin's announcement met mostly with praise from Russian politicians. Vyacheslav Volodin is a member of Russia's lower house of parliament and he spoke with Russia's RTR television.

Mr. Volodin said Russia needs to think about the state's interests and needs to protect itself. He said Georgia is putting itself at the same level as Afghanistan by allowing terrorists to use the Pankisi gorge.

The Pankisi gorge borders the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya and has been a source of controversy between the two countries ever since the beginning of the second Russian campaign in Chechnya. But in recent months tensions have escalated.

Russia accuses Georgia of allowing Chechen rebels to use the gorge as a base to launch attacks against Russian troops in Chechnya. Moscow has been pushing Tbilisi to allow Russian troops into the gorge to hunt for the rebels, something Georgia refuses to do.

Georgia insists that it is handling the problem and last month sent a thousand troops into the gorge. Georgian President Shevardnadze has also accused Russian military planes of bombing Georgian territory in the past, something Moscow denies.