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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Ratchets Up Pressure on Georgia

President Vladimir Putin demanded that Georgian authorities take firmer action against alleged Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge region, telling Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze that it was unacceptable simply to push alleged terrorists out of the area.

Putin sent a letter to Shevardnadze on Wednesday, the Kremlin press service said, in the run-up to a trip by Defense Ministry investigators to Georgia to examine evidence that could support Georgia's allegations that Russian warplanes dropped bombs on an area near Pankisi last month, killing one person and wounding seven more.

Tensions have soared between the two countries, which have traded accusations over which has done more to undermine the other's security. The letter further increased pressure on Shevardnadze to take action.

Russia has long accused Georgia of providing shelter to Chechen rebels, while Georgia has countered that Russia pushed the militants onto Georgian territory in the first place when it launched its second war in Chechnya in five years.

Georgia has rejected Russia's demands to let its troops enter the Pankisi Gorge, near the Chechen border, where the United States believes some militants linked to al-Qaida could be.

"In theory, the possibility that one or more al-Qaida representatives is in the Pankisi Gorge cannot be ruled out," Shevardnadze's spokesman, Kakha Imnadze, said Thursday. "Georgian Security Ministry officials are working on this problem methodically, in close cooperation with the U.S. special services."

Georgia has further infuriated Moscow by refusing to turn over alleged Chechen rebels caught on its border.

Georgian police last week launched what was billed as a drive to rid the gorge of militants and criminals. But Shevardnadze said that before the campaign began, authorities gave militants ample warning to get out in order to avoid bloodshed.

The statement infuriated Moscow.

"Single-minded, decisive and concrete actions are necessary to neutralize [rebel] bands on Georgian territory," the Kremlin said Thursday in a statement summarizing Putin's letter to Shevardnadze. "The tactic of 'peacefully squeezing out' terrorists is unacceptable."

Georgian police have detained seven people in the gorge, including a man described as an Arab carrying a French passport, and six criminals, said Paata Gomelauri, a spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry.

On Thursday, Gomelauri pronounced the operation a success, and said that in addition to arresting people, police were confiscating illegal weapons. As a sign that Georgia is reasserting control over the lawless territory, Gomelauri pointed out that a Georgian school would soon open in place of the Arabic one that had been operating.

On Wednesday, General Yury Baluyevsky, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, called the Georgian operation in Pankisi "window-dressing" and "an imitation of action."

Putin echoed that criticism, expressing hope that the operation was "directed at a real result -- that the terrorists will be blocked, disarmed and handed over to the world community."

Fifteen minutes after a hijacked plane plowed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, U.S. officials intercepted a phone call from an al-Qaida member in Afghanistan to an unknown party in Georgia, U.S. television reported Wednesday.

The caller said he had "heard good news" and that another target was still to come; an indication he knew another jet, the one that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania, was at that very moment zeroing in on Washington, CBS News reported. The call was intercepted by the U.S. National Security Agency, which monitors communications worldwide.