Moscow Fortifies Georgia Border

The military sent troops Wednesday to fortify the border with the volatile Georgian region of Abkhazia, fearing that Chechen rebels said to have invaded the area might try to cross over.

Russia, which has been battling rebels in Chechnya for almost two years, has little desire to fight them on a new front.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia was "extremely worried" that some of the rebels might try to cross the border into Russian territory in the upcoming days.

"We took urgent measures to strengthen the entire Russian-Georgian border, including its Abkhaz part," Ivanov told the Federation Council.

The head of the State Border Guard Service, Konstantin Totsky, reported to President Vladimir Putin that the troops included both army and police units.

The call for troops comes as tensions flare between Russia and Georgia. Russia has accused Georgia of tolerating Chechen rebels on its territory since the beginning of its war in Chechnya in 1999, a charge Georgian officials deny. Unofficially, though, Tbilisi has conceded that Chechens control the Pankisi Gorge at the Chechen-Georgian border.

Abkhaz officials now say the rebels are now holed up in the Kodor Gorge, and Russia is worried that they will head for the Russian border.

Heightening tensions Wednesday, unmarked planes bombed three villages in the Kodor Gorge, according to Abkhaz officials. They blamed the attacks on Georgia.

However, Georgian National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze denied the accusation, saying intercepted radio transmissions from the pilots showed the planes had returned to a base in Russia.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry then got into the act, sending a protest to Moscow that Tbilisi "saw the violation of its airspace by foreign military planes and the bombing of the Kodor Gorge as a violation of the country's sovereignty," according to local media reports.

Moscow, in turn, invited Georgian Ambassador Zurab Abashidze to the Foreign Ministry to decry the "false accusations," NTV reported.

The first word of rebel activity in the Kodor Gorge surfaced over the weekend when rebels allegedly attacked the small village of Georgiyevskoye, killing at least one person.

Then Monday, a helicopter carrying UN observers was shot down in the area. All nine people on board died.

Abkhaz officials said Wednesday that their forces have surrounded several hundred rebels suspected of shooting down the helicopter. Also Wednesday, Chechen and Georgian guerrillas killed 14 people in a raid on Noa, a village in the gorge, the officials said.

The statements could not be independently confirmed.

The Kodor Gorge is located in one of the highest areas of the Great Caucasus mountain range and has always been home to a mish-mash of outlaws, bandits and robbers, who sought refuge there, said Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Moscow-based Caucasus Research Center.

It's through this gorge that a border runs between the rebellious Muslim region of Abkhazia and the rest of mostly Orthodox Georgia. Abkhazia fought a bloody independence war in 1992-93 that ended with Georgia pulling out its troops from Abkhazia in defeat.

Russia aided Abkhazia at the time both politically and militarily. So did the Chechens -- Chechen rebel leaders Ruslan Gelayev and Shamil Basayev made names for themselves during that war.

After Abkhazia blamed Chechen rebels for this week's attacks, Russian officials decided that rebels previously thought to be hiding in the Pankisi Gorge had made their way west to the Kodor region with plans to enter Russia, either in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia republic or near the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

The band in Kodor includes Georgian outlaws and Chechen rebels belonging to units commanded by Gelayev, Abkhaz Security Service chief Raul Khadzhabba told journalists in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, NTV reported.

Security Council head Vladimir Rushailo said the Kodor group includes some of the very people Russia has fought against in Chechnya, Itar-Tass reported.

The claims have not been confirmed by any independent source, and some sources say Gelayev was far away from the area at the time of rebels' incursion.

However, Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the news of Gelayev's presence in the area sounded "much like the truth."

"His presence would make the whole sequence of events perfectly logical," Malashenko said in the telephone interview. "It would mean that the Russian intelligence services are following his movements, and when he appeared in the Kodor Gorge they reacted by sending unmarked planes to bomb his units before they could resurface somewhere in Russia."

The Abkhaz government said Tuesday that it was mobilizing reservists and sending troops to the area of the Sugar Head Mountain in the Kodor Gorge. That announcement has taken some of observers by surprise, prompting talk of Russia's growing influence in the region.

"Gelayev helped Abkhazia enormously in its fight for independence in '92-93, and although quite some time has passed, it is still surprising to see them attack him," Badri Nachkebia, head of the nongovernmental Terrorism and Political Violence Research Center in Tbilisi, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"This could mean that Sukhumi was under serious Russian pressure," he said.

The rising tension in the region could serve as an excuse for Russia to keep its last military base in Georgia beyond a planned deadline of 2002.

Russian troops have withdrawn from almost all of its bases in Georgia, with one exception being the Gudauta base in Abkhazia. Under an interstate agreement, Russia is obliged to close all military bases and withdraw all troops from Georgia by next year.

"Now, Russia might just choose to stay there," said Nachkebia, expressing a sentiment echoed both by Malashenko and Iskandaryan.

Against the backdrop of a worldwide hunt for both real and alleged terrorists, this may be Russia's chance to keep its influence in the region, Iskandaryan said.

"Whether or not Chechen bandits are present there, what Russia is trying to say to the region is, 'Look, your situation has changed. You need us, like it or not,'" he said.