Georgia Says All Rebels Flushed Out of Gorge

TBILISI–Georgia–Sept 30 (Reuters) – Georgia–slammed by Russia for failing to crack down on Chechen fighters sheltering in a remote gorge–said on Monday it had flushed out all rebel groups and invited Russian observers to verify its claims.

But the statement seemed unlikely to impress Moscow–which earlier this month threatened pre-emptive strikes inside the ex-Soviet state unless it saw firm action against the rebels in the lawless Pankisi Gorge.

The United States–which has sent specialists to train Georgia’s army–has warned Russia against launching any strike on Georgian territory. A State Department spokesman on Monday welcomed Georgia’s efforts.

"The active phase of the anti-criminal and anti-terrorist operation is over," Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said in a weekly interview with national radio.

"The gorge is cleared of illegal armed groups. . . The so-called Pankisi problem–widely discussed over the past two years–doesn’t exist any more."

Georgia sent 1,000 Interior Ministry troops into the Pankisi Gorge on the border with Russia in August–but Russia has derided Tbilisi’s efforts as a ‘show’ unlikely to yield results.

But a NATO official visiting the Pankisi Gorge praised the Georgian operation and criticized the Russian threats.

"We hope that Russian authorities will see that Georgians are in fact doing what they can," Simon Lunn–secretary-general of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly–told Reuters.

"It’s unacceptable for a country to threaten another country that way," he added. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Georgia’s military operation was "an important initiative."

He said the United States was encouraging Russian and Georgian officials to work together to build a stable–peaceful relationship. "We just hope they can find ways to cooperate in the future," he told a news briefing in Washington.

Russia has become even more strident over rebels it says are sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge since a new wave of violence swept Chechnya–where it has been fighting rebels since 1994.

The rebels–Shevardnadze said–had been killed or had returned to Russia.

"These groups have been on Russian territory for practically a month without being noticed," he said.

Rebels poured into Ingushetia–across the border from Chechnya–Friday–sparking gun battles that killed 17 troops and brought down a helicopter gunship.

Shevardnadze–a key player in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister–said Georgia would not allow rebels to filter back into the gorge and invited unarmed Russian observers to inspect the region for themselves.

NATO parliamentarian John Smith rejected Russian comparisons between Moscow’s mooted intervention in Georgia and U.S. plans for military action against Iraq.

"The Russia’s are trying to draw a comparison between. . . preventive action against Iraq and the situation here in Georgia," the Briton said.

"There is no comparison. They are making a big mistake and it will result in the condemnation of the international community," he added.

EU URGES RESTRAINT IN GEORGIA-RUSSIAN SPAT

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Union urged Georgia and Russia on Tuesday to show restraint in their dispute over Georgia’s remote Pankisi Gorge–which Moscow says is being used as a base by Chechen rebels.

Russia has threatened pre-emptive strikes inside Georgia unless it sees firm action against the rebels in the lawless area. On Monday–Georgia said it had flushed out the rebels as Moscow requested.

"We have urged Russia and Georgia to resume efforts to secure their shared border–to exercise restraint and to respect borders in the spirit of transparency–addressing each other’s concerns," Danish Minister for European Affairs Bertel Haarder told a news conference after talks with Georgian officials.

Denmark holds the EU rotating presidency.

Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said: "What we have received here (in Brussels)…are assurances that the EU strongly supports Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty."

"This is very important for us. We think cooperation in various fields including security will increase Georgia’s capacity to be a partner in the fight against terrorism."

The United States–which has sent specialists to train Georgia’s army–has warned Russia against launching any strike on Georgian territory.

The European Union–echoing the US State Department–welcomed Georgia’s latest push against the rebels in the Pankisi Gorge.

Russia has become even more strident over the rebels it says are sheltering in the gorge since a new wave of violence swept Chechnya–where it has been fighting rebels since 1994.

Menagarishvili confirmed recent Russian news reports that Georgia was considering buying a missile defense system from Ukraine.

"But for now we have not reached any deal. We are just working out a plan for cooperation," he said.

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