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The 'Rebel Haven' of Pankisi
Georgia's notorious Pankisi Gorge -- where Russia claims thousands of Chechen fighters are taking refuge - has become a virtual no man's land.
Despite Tbilisi's repeated promises that tough action has been taken to "combat crime" in the Akhmetsky region, security forces are wary of sparking armed conflict in an area which has been dubbed the "Georgian Ichkeria".
And, by and large, local sympathies still run high for the Chechens' stubborn struggle against Russia's war machine.
The Pankisi Gorge has been the focus of heated controversy since Russian invaded Chechnya in September 1999.
In the wake of the military campaign, around 7,000 Chechens fled across the border into Georgia, seeking refuge with their ethnic kin, the Kists, who live in the Akhmetsky region.
Moscow promptly announced that the refugees were in fact Chechen fighters, taking advantage of lax border controls to set up secret bases in the Pankisi Gorge.
Eduard Shevardnadze's government strenuously denied the claims but, in December last year, the Kremlin slapped a visa regime on Georgia - the first such measure taken against a former Soviet republic since the collapse of the USSR.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the presidential spokesman on Chechnya, made no secret of the fact that the move came in direct retaliation against Tbilisi's defiance and described the region as a "Georgian Ichkeria" [the Chechen name for their homeland].
Next month, the situation in the Pankisi Gorge will be reviewed by the Council of Europe, of which both Georgia and Russia are members.
Meanwhile, however, a total exclusion zone exists around the Akhmetsky region. The Georgian foreign ministry in Tbilisi advised me to stay away from the area. "The situation there is tense," said a spokesman. "You could be kidnapped."
I travelled up to Akhmeta, the administrative centre of the region, then struck out for the notorious gorge. I didn't get far. A squad of Georgian police officers intercepted me, bundled me into a car and drove me off to eat shashlyki.
"You're a Russian journalist," said one officer. "And people there don't like the Russians. Of course, we could give you a bodyguard but, if there's any trouble and the guard gets killed, it'll be the start of a real war. And why should we provoke a conflict?"
Back in Akhmeta, officials were polite but firm. There was nothing to see in Pankisi, they explained, there was no one there but Chechen refugees.
The deputy head of the regional administration, Vakhtang Chapurashvili, dismissed the suggestion that Chechens referred to the region as the "Georgian Ichkeria" and denied that rebel training camps had been reported in the vicinity of Pankisi.
Khizri Aldamov, the representative of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in Georgia, was quick to agree. "All the real fighters are in Chechnya these days," he said. "There are only refugees here. And we are hardly likely to start laying claim to a region that has shown us such hospitality."
He went on to say that the refugees could sort out their own problems "without Russian tanks or planes and without Georgian troops".
However, the Georgian authorities freely admit that the district has seen a dramatic rise in crime over the past 18 months. Valery Vashakidze, the minister in charge of refugees, said that his representatives had been forced to abandon all attempts to register the Chechens living in the Pankisi Gorge.
When the officials started handing out registration forms to the refugees, they were surrounded by young Chechen men armed with handguns, said Vashakidze. The men demanded they change the wording in the forms since they objected to being registered as "Russian citizens".
The refugees have also refused to move to special camps prepared by the Georgian government. Vashakidze explained, "We could hardly force them and, although officially we only take the elderly, women and children, under international law we have no right to break up families."
Chechen refugees I spoke to who had spent time in the Pankisi Gorge said there were around 20-30 trouble-makers in the region - "young men who have been brought up to use weapons to solve their problems".
For this reason, the Georgian interior ministry troops keep at a safe distance and are content to monitor the situation. They say that most of the crime in the area is committed by the Kists rather than the Chechens "although there are bandits amongst the Chechens too".
One added, "It's just simpler to blame it all on the Chechens, you know." And against the backdrop of Russia's tough new foreign policies, the "myth" of the Pankisi Gorge has undoubtedly served the Kremlin's purposes well.
Erik Batuev is a regular IWPR contributor
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