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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Jockeying for Position in Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia -- FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev arrived in Georgia on Thursday as a top Russian military official said Moscow -- not the United States -- should help its neighbor bring order to the crime-infested Pankisi Gorge.

Patrushev met with Georgian State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzaniya and was to meet later with President Eduard Shevardnadze. Patrushev was vague about his purpose, telling journalists it was "a reciprocal visit."

However, it seemed likely that Patrushev would discuss the Pankisi Gorge, a Georgian region bordering Chechnya that Moscow and Washington have fingered as a haven for terrorists.

"Russia and Georgia should jointly eradicate this terrorist center in the Pankisi Gorge," General Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the General Staff, said in Moscow, Interfax reported. Asked to comment on possible U.S. involvement in such operations, Kvashnin said: "I see no need for this at this stage."

But Patrushev said it was not appropriate to discuss a joint Russian-Georgian operation in the gorge.

"Right now, it would be more correct to speak of the fight against international terrorism in general," he said, adding that the Pankisi Gorge, Chechnya and Afghanistan would be discussed at a meeting in St. Petersburg in late March.

In recent days, Russian media have been awash with speculation about an imminent intervention in the gorge, although the Georgian ambassador to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, said Thursday that Tbilisi sees no need for an "anti-terrorist operation" there.

Shevardnadze said Monday that Georgia could consider joint action in the gorge with the United States, but officials later backtracked, saying such cooperation had not been discussed.

Khaburdzaniya, the state security minister, will travel in March to Washington and London to discuss possible assistance to Georgia for fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and other crime, ministry spokesman Iya Kharshiladze said Thursday. Abashidze said the only assistance Georgia is willing to accept from other countries is "material, technical, informational, methodological," Interfax reported.

On Wednesday, a senior U.S. official said the United States wants to help Georgia root out al-Qaida fighters hiding in the Pankisi Gorge. But Washington's desire to combat followers of Osama bin Laden does not extend to enlisting Russian help to crush the militants accused of using the gorge as a conduit to Chechnya, he said.

The U.S. official flatly denied a report by Itar-Tass -- described as a trial balloon by one analyst -- that quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Washington had outlined a plan for a joint anti-terrorism action with Moscow in the the gorge.

"The Russians have said it's a Georgian problem, and we're trying to help the Georgians get a handle on it," the official said on condition of anonymity. "There is a problem, and we're looking at ways to help support the Georgians."

He declined to say what Washington was considering but gave no hint it would take its war on terrorism to Georgia.

Remarks this month in Tbilisi by U.S. charge d'affaires Philip Remler that fighters had fled to Pankisi from Afghanistan have fueled speculation that the United States might take action in the area.

The U.S. administration has other options short of military action, such as training or other support to Georgian forces. Remler said in an interview with a Georgian weekly the United States wanted to create anti-terrorist forces within the Georgian Defense Ministry.

While analysts say Russia would love to get a green light to pursue militants in Georgia, Washington has not been supportive of such involvement.

"Our goal in all this, what we have discussed with the Georgians and frankly what we've always told the Russians is that we've felt this situation is best dealt with through ... cooperation with the United States and Georgia. That continues to be our approach," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a recent press briefing.

(AP, Reuters, MT)