Gun-running in Georgia

The discovery of a truck smuggling arms from Georgia into Chechnya triggers a war of words between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Gun-running in Georgia

The discovery of a truck smuggling arms from Georgia into Chechnya triggers a war of words between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Georgia's defence ministry is up in arms over accusations that government agents are smuggling weapons and supplies across the border into Chechnya. The scandal reached critical mass on January 11 after a truck carrying contraband weapons from the Russian military base in Vaziani was stopped by Georgian security forces near the Chechen border.

The truck was found to contain anti-tank weaponry, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades with a total street value of $90,000. Military sources say the weapons were "in perfect working order".

The Georgian security ministry later announced that the three men arrested on suspicion of arms smuggling were Russian servicemen, while a video-tape showing the truck leaving the Vaziani base was triumphantly screened on Georgian television.

Maj.-Gen. Levan Kenchadze, head of the security ministry's anti-terrorism wing, claims the weapons were illegally transported through Georgia and security forces reacted to a tip-off that the consignment was about to leave the Vaziani base. The operation was recorded on a concealed video camera.

Kenchadze explained, "We mounted an excellent surveillance operation and spotted a truck entering the base with one set of license plates and leaving with another.

"This was not the first case of smuggling from the base. Our security ministry passed on information about other incidents to Russian intelligence services who assured us that everything was under control."

The Russian military has strenuously denied that any federal personnel were involved in the incident. Lieut.-Gen. Vladimir Andreev, commander of the federal forces in Georgia, said that the truck had local registration plates, rather than Russian military markings. Georgian security forces, he added, had failed to provide any evidence apart from "a badly edited tape" to support their verbal posturing.

Georgian ministers are still smarting from allegations made by Russia's defence minister, Igor Sergeev, earlier this month. Sergeev openly accused the Georgian government of smuggling military ordnance into Chechnya and of actively supporting the rebel bid for independence.

The Russian Army's northern press-centre promptly released reports of Chechen warlords visiting Georgia during the conflict in a bid to recruit members of the notorious Mkhedrioni mercenary unit. The press statement also claimed that two Mi-8 helicopters fly daily from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, carrying supplies into Chechnya and returning with wounded guerrillas. "If the smuggling continues," concluded the statement, "we will resort to active measures and destroy any aircraft violating Russian airspace."

Russian suspicions are echoed within Georgia's own political circles. Former Defence Minister Tengiz Kitovai, recently released from prison by President Eduard Shevardnadze, said that Pankisi Gorge was a hornets' nest of Chechen fighters and smugglers. Kitovai added that maverick Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev was expected to visit Georgia in the near future and the republic would eventually be dragged into the conflict.

Georgia's Defence and Security Committee chairman, Revaz Adamia, has long maintained that the Vaziani base is the focal point of a thriving arms trade in the Caucasus. Smuggling activities at the base, says Adamia, were first reported during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

However, a statement from the Georgian Ministry of Defence dismissed the allegations as "just more provocation". "Georgia will never shelter armed units and terrorists: prolonging this conflict is not in Georgia's interests as it would pose a real danger to our nation's sovereignty." The statement added, "These are well-known Russian military tactics - shifting the blame on to someone else."

The defence ministry release claimed Moscow was attempting to heighten tension between the two nations on the eve of the CIS leaders' summit scheduled for January 25. "It is possible Russia intends to extend its military operations into Georgia, a move which would certainly damage the strategic interests of both nations."

Most observers agree that, as the federal campaign shows every sign of dissolving into a vicious partisan war, Russian generals will be looking for a scapegoat. However, a team of observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be posted on the Russian-Georgian border from January 15, and it is hoped their presence will ensure the conflict does not escalate. US President Bill Clinton has also expressed concern over the latest developments, stressing that any Russian military presence there "threatens Georgia's interests". "We will increase our efforts to strengthen Georgia's frontier troops," said Clinton.

Georgian security minister Vakhtang Kutateladze said that a communiqué was sent to the Russian government in October, warning of smuggling activities on federal military bases. Russian officials were sent to Tbilisi at the end of last year to investigate the allegations but, says Kutateladze, they spent "tens of thousands of dollars and left without making any comment".

Georgia's parliament seethed with indignation. Chairman Zurab Jvania openly accused the Russian military of selling weapons to Chechen fighters, adding, "There's a serious threat of destabilisation because Russia is desperate to bring Georgia to heel and finds our pro-Western outlook unacceptable. Recently, several Russian politicians have voiced concerns that 'Russia will lose Georgia' if Shevardnadze is re-elected president."

The scandal has given renewed vigour to demands for Russian forces to leave the former Soviet republic. Major-General Kenchadze commented, "The threat of destabilisation will be greatly reduced after Russian bases are removed from Georgia. Then, there will be no further incidents of this nature and additional border control will become redundant."

Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper.

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