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Georgia: Chechen Transfer Operation Exposed

Fearing a Russian invasion, Tbilisi attempted to ferry hundreds of Chechen rebels out of the country last month.
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Russian threats to flush out Chechen insurgents trapped in the Pankisi gorge in northeast Georgia prompted the interior ministry last month to escort hundreds of the rebels across the country into Abkhazian territory, where they have been practically surrounded by Abkhaz and Russian troops, an IWPR investigation can reveal.


The insurgents, who have been stuck in the Pankisi since 1999, apparently believed they could make their way back into Chechnya via Abkhaz territory and the southern Russian republics of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia.


But they would only be able to do so if Tbilisi granted them safe passage through the country - which is precisely what appears to have happened.


Tbilisi has consistently refused to cooperate with Moscow on any military operation against the Chechens in the Pankisi, and may have calculated that by dumping them over the border in the self-styled Abkhaz republic they would wash their hands of the fighters and avert Russian intervention.


The unwanted Chechen guests have been a sticking point in Russian-Georgian relations since they arrived two years ago.


The fighters, however, are now trapped in the Kodori gorge - a lawless area through which they had hoped to pass unnoticed to get to the Russian border - as Russian troops have gathered on the frontier to prevent them crossing. The Chechens' attempt to get back to their homeland seems to have been thwarted and their fate remains unclear.


IWPR has heard eyewitness accounts from several villagers in the northwest of Georgia who say they saw interior ministry lorries transporting hundreds of soldiers they believed to be Chechens in early September. One customs official on the Abkhaz border said the Tbilisi authorities had told him to ignore the vehicles which were passing into the Kodori region. "That has nothing to do with you," an interior ministry official told him on the phone.


The reports were backed by Georgian government sources and international officials who've confirmed that the trucks were ferrying Chechens. One source close to senior officials in the Tbilisi administration told IWPR the operation was the work of President Eduard Shevardnadze and Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze. " This was planned by Shevardnadze and Targamadze, " the source said.


The reports confirm concerns raised by the chairman of Georgia's parliamentary committee for defence and security, Giorgi Baramidze, who last month accused Targamadze of involvement in a clandestine plan to ship the Chechens from the Pankisi gorge to Abkhaz territory. His claims were denied by the authorities.


Since the outbreak of the second Chechen war in 1999, Moscow has repeatedly urged Tbilisi to cooperate in rooting out rebels who crossed over the border with refugees shortly after the fighting broke out.


Georgia has long denied the presence of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi area - just south of the border with Chechnya - fearing that it would be dragged into a conflict if it admitted that they were there. The authorities effectively turned a blind eye to the insurgents' activities until a month ago, when they seemed to have been alerted that Moscow had run out of patience and was about to intervene militarily.


The Chechen fighters had effectively been trapped in the gorge as soon as, after their exodus from Chechnya, OSCE monitors and Russian soldiers began patrolling the frontier making it more or less impenetrable. As a consequence, the only way the rebels could return to their homeland was to trek to the northwest of Georgia and smuggle themselves across the three southern Russian republics.


International officials in Tbilisi are saying that Georgia was, literally, caught between a rock and a hard place. With the Russians threatening to attack positions on Georgian territory, Tbilisi was forced to do something about the Chechen menace. But because the government was opposed to confronting the rebels militarily - as Moscow wanted it to - the only real option left was to help them escape.


"It's a no-win situation," said one Western diplomat, who confirmed that the authorities had transferred the rebels across the country. "Georgia had a difficult dilemma on its hands - either risk Russian intervention in Pankisi or take the (fighters) to Abkhazia."


The relocation of the Chechen rebels has, predictably, provoked a hostile response from the Abkhaz and their Russian allies.


Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov has accused Tbilisi of refusing to fight "bandits" and "terrorists" and announced that Russian forces were being sent to the Abkhaz border to ensure the Chechen fighters don't cross.


The Russian foreign ministry has upped the ante further, warning that the presence of Chechens on Abkhaz territory could trigger a re-run of the early Nineties war between Abkhazia and Georgia.


There has been a signifciant rise in tensions in the Kodori gorge, which straddles Abkhaz and Georgian territory, since the Chechens were transferred there last month. The area was already unstable because of the long-standing presence of Georgian partizans, pledged to regain control of Abkhazia since the civil war ended in 1993.


Over the last week or so, Abkhaz rebels say they have clashed with Chechens and Georgians on several occasions - most recently on October 9 when 14 civilians were reportedly killed in fighting around the village of Naa, close to the gorge.


The clash came a day after the shooting down of a UN helicopter in the same region, with the loss of nine passengers and crew. A UN investigation into the incident is under way. Abkhaz officials, meanwhile, have been quick to blame the Chechens in the Kodori gorge.


At the same time, several jets and helicopters have bombed villages in the gorge. The Abkhaz and Russian authorities pointed the finger of blame at Georgia, which counterned that intercepted radio messages indicated the aircraft were Russian.


Tensions in the area escalated on Thursday when Abkhaz officials said their forces had launched air strikes against Georgians and Chechens in the gorge. This came shortly after Tbilisi had said it was sending troops to parts of Abkhazia still under its control. The Sukhumi authorities denounced the move as a "step towards war".


Eka Andjaparidze is a pseudonym of a freelance journalist. Philip O'Neil is IWPR assistant editor.


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