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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Interior Ministers Sign a Deal on Pankisi

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said Friday that he reached an agreement with Georgian officials to conduct joint operations in the Pankisi Gorge after months of tension over the crime-infested area bordering Chechnya.

But Eduard Gendzekhadze of the Georgian Interior Ministry said Saturday that all operations in the gorge will be conducted by Georgian forces alone and that the newly signed agreement did not change anything. "Joint military operations are not being planned," he said.

Under growing pressure to restore order in the gorge, Georgian units entered the region about two weeks ago, but Russian officials have continued to push Tbilisi to let the Russian military also conduct raids.

Georgia has repeatedly refused, but on Friday, Gryzlov, attending a summit in Baku, suggested that he had discussed with Georgian officials the possibility of joint, investigative operations in Pankisi.

Both sides have since given conflicting interpretations of their discussions, which came amid an agreement reached by all members of the Commonwealth of Independent States to take joint preventive and investigative measures against terrorists. It was negotiated during a meeting of interior ministers from the CIS.

Gryzlov noted that the countries also agreed to "reveal and prevent possible acts of terror against other countries" in the CIS.

"That is a very important point," he said. "We actively discussed the possibility of carrying out an investigative operation in the territory of the Pankisi Gorge with the aim of uncovering the international terrorists and members of bandit formations."

Gendzekhadze denied that such a move was planned.

Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said cooperation would be limited to searching for specific suspects. "There can be no talk of large-scale actions by Russian forces. We can bring order [to the gorge] ourselves," he said.

Russia has long accused Georgia of sheltering Chechen rebels. The Kremlin has criticized Georgia's recent security operation as inadequate and complained that alleged militants are simply being encouraged to head back into Russia.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking in Moscow on Saturday, called it "a theater show." "They should be given excellent marks for the scenery, production and artistic skills, but its efficiency was zero," Ivanov said.

Georgian officials have countered that it was Russia's war in Chechnya that pushed the rebels into Pankisi in the first place. Meanwhile, the United States has said it believes some militants in Pankisi could be linked to al-Qaida.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told ORT television that Russia was concerned that the militants would launch attacks on Russia from the gorge. In particular, he expressed concern over unspecified reports that militants had left the gorge and headed for Abkhazia.

The leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions of Georgia controlled by separatists, met Saturday and announced that their regions will coordinate actions if terrorists make incursions.

Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Dzhergeniya further charged that Georgia is looking for a pretext to send forces into these regions.