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By Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili

Russia Concerned About U.S. Troops

Associated Press, February 27, 2002

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - Russia expressed concern Wednesday over U.S. plans to train troops in Georgia to fight rebels allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. A Georgian defense official said a few American advisers were already in the former Soviet republic.

Defense officials in Washington said the United States is considering sending 100 to 200 U.S. soldiers to Georgia to provide anti-terrorist training.

U.S. and Russian officials say al-Qaida-linked militants including several dozen who had been in Afghanistan are operating in the area of the Pankisi Gorge, near Georgia's border with Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Georgian defense official Paapa Gaprindashvili said there were currently five American "military experts" in Georgia to help set up "an anti-terrorist subdivision" that could go after the militants in Pankisi Gorge.

Russian officials have grown increasingly nervous about the U.S. military presence in formerly Soviet Central Asia, which Russia considers it sphere of influence. U.S. forces have been deployed in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support the campaign in Afghanistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told state-controlled ORT television Wednesday that the U.S. military presence in Georgia could "further aggravate the already complicated situation" in the region.

U.S. and Georgian officials said U.S. forces would not take part directly in anti-terrorist operations. "Georgia has not discussed this question with the United States or with other friendly countries," Deputy Security Minister Iraklii Alasaniya told independent Rustavi 2 television.

Gaprindashvili, who heads the Georgian Defense Ministry's international department, said that a group of U.S. military experts came to Georgia earlier this month to choose the military units that would take part in the program.

A U.S. deployment would be the second large-scale training operation undertaken by the Pentagon in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, following the deployment of special forces trainers to the Philippines.

Russian officials portray their own war against separatists in Chechnya as a fight against international terrorism and allege that rebels were using the Pankisi Gorge as a staging ground. Some have even suggested that bin Laden himself could be in the Pankisi Gorge an allegation Georgian officials have denied.

Some Russian officials have suggested a joint Georgian-Russian operation to root out the militants, but Georgians determined to maintain their independence from Moscow have rejected the idea.

Georgia has been a key U.S. ally in the region since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet union, and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has appeared eager to secure U.S. help a move that would check Russian power in the region.

The U.S. aid comes at a time when Georgia faces not only lawlessness in the Pankisi Gorge, but separatists in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and a wave of crime and corruption that have underlined the government's weakness.

President Vladimir Putin and most other high-ranking Russian officials have said American troops are necessary in Central Asia to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan. But officials seemed less inclined to go along quietly with the U.S. presence in Georgia.

Ivanov, the foreign minister, said Wednesday that Moscow's concern about U.S. military personnel in Georgia "was well known in Washington," and he reiterated Russia's proposal for a joint Russian-Georgian security operation.

Alexei Arbatov, the deputy head of the Russian parliament's defense committee, said that if the United States wants Russian cooperation in the war against terrorism, it should consult with Moscow about its military deployments in the region.

But he suggested that Russia could not object too much.

"In the Caucasus, as in Central Asia, Russia faces a choice: either Islamic terrorists arming themselves without limit, or an American political and military presence beginning to build up," Arbatov said. "Today Russia is in no position to independently eradicate the terrorist hot spots. It has no other choice."

See also:
Anti-Terror Coalition

Associated Press, January 27, 2002

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