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
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
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
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
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