Nezavisimaya gazeta on December 10 quoted “informed” military sources as saying that Russia’s Defense Military is ready to launch “preventive strikes on terrorist bases” outside Russia. “One can assume with a high degree of probability that this relates above all to the bases of Chechen terrorists in Georgia,” the newspaper wrote. It quoted Major-General Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the regional operations headquarters of Russia’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Chechnya, as saying that more than 200 Chechen fighters loyal to the late rebel field commander Ruslan Gelaev were located in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge around the villages Duisi and Khalatsani. Itar-Tass, citing sources in headquarters for the Chechnya military operation, had reported on December 9 that a second group of militants made up of roughly fifty men was located in the northern part of the Pankisi Gorge near villages of Omalo and Tselebani. Shabalkin told Nezavisimaya gazeta that this second group was under the command of two Arabs he identified as “Abu Atiya” and “Abu Rabiya,” who, he claimed, belong to “international terrorist organizations” headed by Abu Hafs, a close ally of Osama bin Laden. (Abu Hafs is a core member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981.)
A third group of approximately 30 Turkish-speaking fighters is reportedly located near the Pankisi Gorge village of Birkani. Itar-Tass quoted military sources as saying this information has been “confirmed” by a rebel fighter captured in Chechnya’s Shatoi district who was member of the group headed by field commander Doku Umarov.
Shabalkin expressed concern that the terrorists he claims are located in the Pankisi Gorge are preparing for new attacks in Russia and are recruiting local residents to help carry them out. But according to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Shabalkin “categorically denied” that Russian forces are preparing to launch preventive strikes against targets in the Pankisi Gorge. “We are ready to meet them on the border,” Shabalkin said of the alleged Pankisi-based terrorists. “However, they are unlikely to break through in large numbers in the near future. The crossings are blocked by snow and will be closed until June 2005.”
On December 10, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reiterated that Russia is prepared to strike preemptively at terrorists anywhere in the world. “We can see that in practice such strikes are being delivered,” RIA Novosti quoted Ivanov as saying. “This has already become normal.” He also claimed that 150 to 200 “mercenaries” from more than 50 countries are operating inside Chechnya.
A Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Guram Donadze, denied that up to 200 Chechen militants from Ruslan Gelaev’s group are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge, Interfax reported on December 10. “Georgia’s law enforcement chiefs consider such reports to be provocative and aimed at aggravating Russian-Georgian relations,” he said. “The Georgian side fully controls the situation in the gorge and takes the responsibility of declaring that there are no Chechen or any other militants in the region.” Georgia’s ambassador to Russia, Valery Chechelashvili, convened a press conference in Moscow in response to the virtually simultaneous comments by Shabalkin and Ivanov. “The coincidence alerted us,” said Chechelashvili, who added that Georgia was prepared to escort both Russian journalists and Russian officials “at any level” to the Pankisi Gorge to show them that there are no terrorists there. Asked by journalists whether Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was in Georgia, Chechelashvili answered: “I’m sure Maskhadov is not in Georgia.”
Some observers believe that the Kremlin, stinging from its failure to steer events in Ukraine to its liking, may be tempted to demonstrate power in another country of the “near abroad” such as Georgia.
Meanwhile, “more than ten” Chechen refugees residing in the Pankisi Gorge village of Duisi have been on a hunger strike for a week, Kavkazcenter reported on December 14. According to the Chechen separatist website, they are protesting a lack of adequate food supplies and “permanent psychological terror from the authorities of Georgia and Russian and Western representatives,” whom they accuse of failing to provide tolerable living conditions and ignoring their requests to leave for a third country. Since the start of the hunger strike, no official or aid-organization representative has met with the refugees, who believe that the authorities are planning to force them back home and “categorically refuse to return to occupied Chechnya,” Kavkazcenter added. The website reported that inhabitants of other villages in the Pankisi Gorge planned to join the hunger strike.
Chechen President Alu Alkhanov told Interfax on December 11 that Chechnya is prepared to accept the several hundred Chechen refugees currently residing in the Pankisi Gorge.