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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia's Chechens Feel War Closing In

JOKOLO, Georgia -- In a sun-drenched valley in Georgia, a Chechen rebel watches his children play with a cat, and it is hard to believe that across the nearby Russian border there is another sunny valley where bombs and missiles crush houses.

Gazing out across this peaceful gorge, the fighter dreams of the other valley 40 kilometers away in Chechnya. It does not matter to him how beautiful it is here in Georgia: It will never be home. And so long as Russian soldiers occupy Chechnya, there will be war.

With spring, the sun is melting the snow in the high mountain passes of Georgia, opening the gates to the war. Young Chechen men here will cross the border to fight, and retreat back into Georgia to avoid Russian attacks.

"This war will go on for a long, long time,'' said the 39-year-old rebel, who requested anonymity. "I'm afraid that this war will splash over into all of the Caucasus.''

The risk that the war in Chechnya could spill into Georgia terrifies the people of Jokolo, Duisi, Birkiana and Omalo - the ethnic Chechen villages clustered together in the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia, where there are about 6,350 Chechen refugees.

"The worst-case scenario is that the war could spread into Georgia. We've been trying to prevent it,'' said Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, explaining that the mountain passes from Chechnya into the Pankisi Gorge are impossible to control.

He said there are probably several dozen fighters in the gorge now. "But it's quite possible that with the melting snow, larger numbers will cross.''

Russia has bombarded Georgia three times during the current war. Georgian officials fear the Russian military will attack again, on the pretext that rebels are sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge.

For U.S., British and other investors in the nearby Caspian oil fields, any spread of the war would be alarming. A major pipeline that would cross this nation and carry oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is on the drawing boards and strongly backed by the U.S. government.

Given the fears of a Russian attack, the question of whether Chechen fighters are present in this Georgian gorge is extremely sensitive.

When outside journalists turn up in Jokolo, they are met with freezing looks. The tension is palpable. Young men stare with silent hostility at strangers carrying cameras. Some walk briskly away or cover their faces. Few admit to being fighters, but some say they plan to return to fight the Russians.

"The snow will melt and the passes will be clear. I'll go back and I will fight. We have no other choice,'' said a 22-year-old Chechen man who declined to be named. "I have weapons at home, stashed away.'' He believes it is better to die in Chechnya defending his homeland "than to sit here on humanitarian aid.''

The chief of Georgia's Border Guards Department, Valery Chkheidze, said the presence of Chechen men in the Pankisi Gorge who would return to Chechnya to fight against Russia is undeniable.

"Take a grown man whose whole family was wiped out. If he's a normal person - not some idiot who cares nothing for his family or motherland - that's how he'll feel. Imagine a 14-year-old boy who witnessed the deaths of his father, mother and brothers. Can we guarantee this young man won't take up weapons?'' he said.

With the coming thaw, Chkheidze said, the Chechen fighters will be constantly on the move, entering Georgia and other neighboring areas to evade the Russian military and replenish supplies.

"We'll do our best to protect our border. You can never guarantee that dozens or hundreds of fighters could not penetrate and come into Georgia, pursued by Russian troops,'' said Peter Mamradze, senior adviser to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

More worrisome to the Georgian side is the fear of what the Russians might do.

"You can expect anything,'' Chkheidze said. "You can expect that some gangs of bogus fighters - actually cooperating with the Russian special services - could cross the border and provoke the situation and then blame the Chechens for it. They could fly over and bomb our territory and then adopt an ostrich position and say it was not them.

"As to violations of our airspace, it happens every week. I think it is written into their timetable.''

Targamadze feels certain that Russia's secret services want to provoke a conflict in the Pankisi Gorge to draw Georgia into the war and control the gorge.

"Russia cannot control the Pankisi Gorge border area from its side. Armed men who are in the Pankisi Gorge can travel to and from Chechnya by foot passes. They can hide their military equipment in Chechnya and later cross the border back into Chechnya and use it, taking part in the guerrilla war,'' Targamadze said.

Georgian forces are on alert, ready to resist a major incursion by any armed force, Chechen or Russian. The United States is helping Georgians protect their border, providing $18.8 million in aid.