Georgia says Russia and US helping to clear rebels


GEORGIA: Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, under pressure from Moscow to clear Chechen rebels from a remote gorge, said yesterday that US and Russian special forces were helping in an operation to remove them.

Mr Shevardnadze was addressing a news conference after being subjected to fierce criticism over what Russia says is Georgia's failure to take action against separatists making incursions across the border into Russia's Chechnya province. Russian officials and media have suggested his hold on power is weak.

Russian Defence Minister Mr Sergei Ivanov told a Moscow daily that the Kremlin had a number of options if Georgia did nothing. Another top military official said there was no question of moving troops into Georgia en masse.

Mr Shevardnadze said the operation to clear rebels from Pankisi Gorge would be complete "within 10, 12, 15 days".

"The representatives of Russian special services are in Pankisi. They have their tasks and their Georgian colleagues are helping them. American representatives are also present," he said.

Russia had earlier said it won agreement from Tbilisi to send an unspecified number of police to the area, a report Georgia denied at the time. US officials have not reported their forces being in the gorge. Dozens of US military trainers are in Georgia to help turn the country's ragged army into a viable force.

President Vladimir Putin said last week that Russia, which has been battling Chechen separatists for nearly a decade, was considering strikes against rebel bases inside Georgia under UN Security Council resolutions.

US President Bush urged Moscow at the weekend to allow Georgia to tackle the rebels itself. Russia has scoffed at Tbilisi's efforts to clear up the gorge on its own.

Mr Shevardnadze, who played a major role in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister, has led Georgia through a steep economic decline since becoming leader in 1992, months after it secured independence from Soviet rule. He told national radio earlier yesterday the operation to root out the rebels, launched last month, was entering a decisive phase.

"On my orders, decisive action has been launched to detain terrorist elements and criminals and to free hostages." - (Reuters)