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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia: Not Many Militants in Pankisi

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said Saturday there were only "a few dozen" militants in the Pankisi Gorge, and officials reported that an Arab man with a French passport had been detained.

Georgia has been under pressure from Russia to clean up the gorge, which Moscow says serves as a base and supply line for rebels from Chechnya. The United States, which has sent instructors to train a Georgian anti-terrorist force, has said fighters linked to the al-Qaida terror network are also in the gorge.

Shevardnadze said at a news conference Saturday there were a few dozen Chechen and Arab militants in the gorge. He said information about al-Qaida fighters there had not been confirmed.

Shevardnadze said Georgian Interior Ministry troops, who rolled into the gorge Aug. 25, had detained two people since beginning their sweep. One of them was identified as Halid Oldali, an Arab with a French passport.

Georgian State Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili said a criminal investigation had been opened against him for alleged ties with a foreign terrorist organization. Laliashvili said Oldali arrived in Georgia in 1999 and later crossed into Chechnya, where he took part in the fighting against Russian troops.

Shevardnadze repeated that Georgia would not accept Russia's offer to conduct a military operation in the Pankisi Gorge. "If that happens, it will be aggression. But I don't think it will happen," he said.

He said Russia was to blame in the first place for the presence of fighters in the gorge. "They [Russian forces] chased these people onto our territory and created the problems," Shevardnadze said.

Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, who led some 1,000 troops into the gorge, said it may take months to bring the area under control.

He also said freeing British banking expert Peter Shaw was a priority. "We have certain information that has led us to think he was in the gorge, but I can't say for certain," said Narchemashvili, who accompanied a group of foreign diplomats from Tbilisi on a tour of Pankisi.

Shaw was abducted June 18 outside his home in Tbilisi. Narchemashvili said several other hostages also could be in the gorge, including a Georgian priest.

Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Gudev, took part in Friday's tour and said Moscow expects Georgia to "wage real combat against terrorists," not simply push them toward the border with Russia.

Narchemashvili said his troops had established 13 checkpoints and run patrols in Pankisi, but that it would be hard to control the entire area. "We are controlling all roads, but we can't control every small path overhead," he said, pointing at the mountains.