Russia accused of airstrike deep in Georgian territory

Bombing kills at least one near Chechen enclave

August 24, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russian warplanes bombed a mountain village in the beleaguered nation of Georgia yesterday, killing at least one civilian and wounding five others, Georgian officials said.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied that the bombing occurred, but Georgian officials gave detailed accounts of a raid that they said targeted the settlement of Bukhrevi in the area of the Pankisi Gorge, north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

It was the latest of several reported bombings by Russian aircraft of Georgian territory since November but the first to produce reports of casualties, highlighting the deteriorating relations between the two nations.

Speaking on Georgian television, Georgia's president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, accused Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of having lost control of his military leaders. He warned that Georgia would retaliate if the bombing continued, but it was not clear what actions the nation's 5,000-man army could take.

"What can our reaction be?" Lt. Gen. Valery Chkheidze, commander of Georgia's border guards, said in a telephone interview. "Can we start shooting down planes? Where is that going to take us?"

About 80,000 Russian troops are fighting Islamic separatists in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, which shares a mountainous 50-mile border with Georgia.

Chkheidze said that Russian pilots could not have mistaken a Georgian village for a Chechen one and that the bombing occurred "deep in Georgian territory."

Russia blames Georgia

Russia insisted that none of its aircraft were involved. "Russia has no bearing on this," said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking to reporters in Novosibirsk.

Instead, he suggested that an investigation might find that the Georgians had staged their own raid on Chechen insurgents on Georgian territory.

Chkheidze said the aircraft dropped 1,100-pound bombs on mountain slopes, killing one man gathering firewood. A Georgian couple in the area was missing and feared dead, he said.

About 7,500 Chechen refugees live in the Pankisi Gorge, and Russia has accused Georgia of permitting Chechen rebels to base themselves there. Moscow has pressured Georgia to conduct joint military exercises in the area or allow Russian troops to stage operations. Georgia has declined.

Tensions rose this week after a giant Russian Mi-26 military helicopter crashed in a minefield near the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing 116 Russian servicemen. Chechen fighters claimed they had shot down the aircraft. It was the bloodiest single incident for the Russians in the war and the worst helicopter crash in history.

Chechens ordered out

Shevardnadze said he was ordering all male Chechen refugees to leave the Pankisi Gorge. And he repeated a pledge to send Georgian police and military units into the gorge. It's not clear how effective either of those measures will be.

For years, Georgian police and soldiers have stayed out of the gorge, which was ruled by criminal gangs engaged in kidnapping, arms smuggling and gun running. Georgian human rights organizations charged that some top Georgian officials served as silent partners in those crimes.

Last year, American officials said they had evidence that the gorge was also being used as a haven for dozens of fighters with ties to al-Qaida and other groups.

Washington dispatched 26 Green Berets to Georgia as part of a $64 million, two-year effort to prepare 1,600 Georgian soldiers to fight the seemingly well-trained insurgents. U.S. commanders say they are under orders to keep their men away from the Pankisi.

Chechen rebels have reportedly expanded their control in the Pankisi in recent months. During a week-long trip to the gorge in July, a German journalist for the Frankfurter Rundschau, Florian Hassel, reported seeing Chechen fighters with new uniforms and up-to-date Russian weapons. "There were people with guns all over the place," he said. "So it is definitely what the Russians say. It is completely controlled by the rebels."

A Georgian TV station broadcast pictures this week of what it said was a recently abandoned Chechen rebel camp, littered with debris.

But Chkheidze, the border guard chief, denied that the camp had been used by a Chechen rebel group. "What they showed on TV was a few empty cans. They could have been [from] criminals."

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