Sources tell EurasiaNet that four British and one German national may be among terrorist cadres operating in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. While details remain limited, it is almost certain that the Europeans would have trained in the gorge under Arab instructors affiliated to with commander Khattab, currently fighing inside Chechnya.
In the past year at least four British nationals have passed through the 80-kilometer-long gorge, on the border with Chechnya, according to a source with considerable knowledge about developments in the area. The last British citizen reportedly left the gorge late last December. Officials have not been able to independently verify the information.
For the last two years the Pankisi has been a source of tension between Russia and Georgia. Moscow has long accused Tblisi of allowing Chechen guerrillas to use the gorge for training and logisitics, as well as a base from which to move into Chechnya. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian-Georgian hostility is also being stoked by tension in Abkhazia following a hostage-taking incident involving four Russian soldiers who are members of a CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov castigated Georgian officials for not taking sufficient measures to ensure security, adding that provocative actions must be "categorically stopped," the Interfax news agency reported.
The hostage incident prompted separatist Abkhaz leaders to renew calls for closer relations with Russia. "Abkhazia's intent to closely cooperate with Russia is consistent with the policy of its leadership [in Sukhumi]," said Sergei Shamba, the self-proclaimed republic's top diplomat.
The Georgian parliament adopted a resolution March 20 that called on Russia to withdraw CIS peacekeepers from Abkhazia, and demanding that the Abkhaz leadership reach a settlement on the territory's political status within three months. Tbilisi is willing to offer Abkhazia broad autonomy within the Georgian state. Abkhaz leaders seek independence.
Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Abkhaz leadership accussed Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze of inciting terrorism. "Tbilisi hopes to use terrorists for its own purposes. There is information that Georgian authorities harbor plans to involve international and Georgian terrorists in a campaign of military agression," the statement says. "The militant mood in Georgia has become especially pronounced after the United States stepped up military assistance."
US officials say American military advisors will engage solely in training Georgian special forces for anti-terrorism operations in the Pankisi region. In mid-February a US diplomat claimed that al Qaeda fighters might be opperating in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. That claim has not been confirmed by non-governmental sources. Sources tell EurasiaNet that there are Arab specialists working with Chechens in the Pankisi, but it hasn't been verified whether these Arabs are linked to al Qaeda.
What is known for sure is that the Pankisi is being used by Chechen separatists as a safe haven. In late 2001, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze tactitly addmitted that top Chechen commander Khamzat Gelayev and up to 300 Chechen guerrillas might well be in the Pankisi. He also infuriated Moscow by referring to Gelayev as "an educated man."
Aside from possibly hosting a significant Chechen guerrilla force, the Pankisi has also become utterly notorious for its lawlessness. Local criminals - mostly Georgians of Chechen ethnicity, known as Kists - have engaged in systematic kidnapping for ransom. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to sources, Arabs in the Pankisi serve as trainers in terrorist tactics. Most foreigners fighting in Chechnya join one of two groups: that of Ibn ul Khattab or that of Ramazan Akhmadov, who was killed early in 2001. Within Chechen military circles such groups are invariably referred to as "Wahabbi," denoting a religious extremism. "Wahabbi" groups are also notorious for their inter-war kidnapping activities.
These radical Islamic groups obtain money from the distribution of videos of the fighting in Chechnya. Videos, circulated from London to the Gulf, are either bought in mosques, or shown to potential sponsors as a means of both eliciting funds and enticing potential recruits. Of all the groups operating in Chechnya, Khattab has proved himself to be by far the most media savvy and best fund raiser.
Brought to Chechnya in the early 1990's by a brother of Ramazan Akhmadov, Khattab has maintained close relations with the "Wahabbi" groups in Chechnya, where he ran a guerrilla training camp for foreign fighters between the two Chechen wars. At least one of the trainers was a British citizen, who is still fighting inside Chechnya.
For all this, though, connections between Arab radicals and the Chechen separatists should not be overplayed, sources caution. Foreigners fighting in Chechnya still constitute a tiny minority of the overall separatist force. Foreigners also have little in common with the vast majority of the Chechen fighter force, either culturally or linguistically.
The arrival of US military advisors does not guarantee that Georgian forces will be successful in reestablishing the government's authority in the Pankisi Gorge. If there are, as Moscow has long alleged, several hudred Chechen guerrillas hiding among the 7,000 or Chechen refugees in Pankisi - and a small number of Arabs - separating them from the local population could prove both enormously difficult and potentially explosive. Tblisi's hope is that a sizeable Chechen force will return to Chechnya when the winter snow melts, leaving only a handfull of Chechen and Arab fighters that Georgian forces must contend with.
Roddy Scott is a cameraman with Frontline Television, based in the United Kingdom.