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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Offers to Allow Army Observers

TBILISI, Georgia -- Trying to defuse an explosive war of words with Russia, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze proposed Monday that Russia send unarmed military observers to the rugged Pankisi Gorge.

Moscow criticized the offer.

"Once again, I repeat my proposal to the Russian leadership: Send your military observers -- unarmed, of course -- so that they can oversee the course of the operation in Pankisi and other districts," Shevardnadze said during his weekly radio interview.

After months of Russian browbeating over the alleged terrorist presence in the Pankisi Gorge, Shevardnadze also tried to direct attention to another long-running dispute with Russia over Georgia's separatist Black Sea province of Abkhazia.

He said that in a letter received over the weekend, U.S. President George W. Bush had welcomed a Georgian proposal for three-way talks between U.S., Russian and Georgian officials on Abkhazia.

"This cooperation will significantly accelerate the political regulation of the Abkhaz conflict on the basis of Georgia's territorial integrity," Shevardnadze said.

An aide to President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, criticized the offer on observers and the idea of three-way talks on the situation in Pankisi.

"Russia is interested not in virtual cooperation but in real interaction, not in proposals on commissions but in concrete results in bringing order in the Pankisi Gorge," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Putin and other officials have threatened to launch military strikes across the Russia-Georgia border to destroy militants they claim are heading for Russian territory from the Pankisi Gorge.

They have derided a Georgian police operation to root out militants and criminals from the gorge, which borders Chechnya, as an ineffectual display of force.

Georgian officials have shot back with allegations that Moscow is threatening Georgian sovereignty and that it has designs on Abkhazia and another separatist region, South Ossetia.

Georgia launched the Pankisi operation in late August, after officials warned militants to leave to avoid bloodshed. As of Sunday, 30 people were in custody in Pankisi, including 25 ethnic Chechens and a man of Arab origin with a French passport. By Monday afternoon, however, 12 of the Chechens had been released, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said.

Shevardnadze said about 2,500 military troops, police and other security service agents were taking part in the operation. One Georgian special forces officer has been wounded and two criminals who put up armed resistance were killed, he said. In all, the operation has been successful, he said.

"A great quantity of weapons, ammunition, Wahhabi literature, stolen cars and so on have been found," Shevardnadze said.

In another development, Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said French military instructors would arrive later this year to help train the Georgian army. U.S. instructors arrived in May to help the Georgia improve its military and its capacity to mount anti-terrorist operations.