Pankisi, Abkhazia and the Problem of International Terrorism
With regard to Pankisi, despite the fact that there is a great deal of information, it seems that people are still confused about the specifics.
The Pankisi problem is directly connected to the second war in Chechnya, when about seven thousand refugees crossed over into Georgia. Unfortunately, about 600 Chechen militants came with the refugees and, in my opinion, the Russian border guards were probably complicit in their movements. We placed the refugees in the Pankisi gorge because of the presence of the Kists--ethnic Chechens who have lived there for more than a century, and we thought that this was the most expedient solution.
Until 2001, the problem of Pankisi had effectively been frozen because of the difficulties faced by the Georgian government--they were trying to deal with other problems. This approach unraveled in October 2001 when the Chechen fighters crossed over into Abkhazia. In November 2001 I was appointed as the Minister of State Security and my first order of business was to deal with Pankisi. Initially, we started out by studying the gorge--it is a small place, about 44 square kilometers where approximately 13,000 people live, including the refugees.
The criminal situation in the gorge worsened in January 2002--after 9/11--because the funds from various Arab sources that had been flowing to the militants were cut off and they began to harass the local Georgian population.
President Eduard Shervardnadze convened the National Security Council in order to draft an outline of a plan to deal with the Pankisi problem. Until August, the Ministry of State Security was in charge of operations in Pankisi and they were able to pinpoint and identify the criminals there. In January 2002 I publicly noted that there might be people in Pankisi who were connected with international terrorism. According to our calculations, alongside the Chechen fighters, there were approximately one hundred fighters who were not of Chechen nationality, who were Arabs or members of other ethnic groups. We concluded that it would have been difficult to dislodge them by force because of their combat experience. So we decided on a different approach--to confront smaller groups to pressure them to leave the gorge, rather than provoke a war. After all, we could not have expected help from anyone if we had conducted a confrontational war in Pankisi, not even from the Russians, who have been unable to successfully conduct such operations in the mountains. We had to separate those who were terrorists and criminals from the refugee population.
The active phase of the Pankisi operation started when troops of the Interior Ministry moved into the gorge. Even before this occurred, we apprehended Adam Dekushev, considered a suspect in the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, and handed him over to the Russian side. On August 25, 2002, a joint operation between the Interior, State Security and Defense Ministries began. By this time, most of the militants had left the gorge; keep in mind that there are 140 different roads that can be used to cross from Georgia to Russia, and the mountains are 2000-3000 meters in height, making it extremely difficult to track them. At present, there are about ten checkpoints maintained by troops of the Interior Ministry in Pankisi, but we think that there are still about fifty to sixty militants still intermingled with the refugee population. In time, however, we will apprehend them.
About two months ago, we had a special operation in Lagodekhi (in Kakheti); we arrested a gang of five terrorists, of whom one was extradited to Russia. The main brunt of future operations in Pankisi will be borne by the Interior Ministry; there are still two or three notorious figures we hope to apprehend.
I would like to touch on the question of the apprehension of terrorist suspects in London and their possession of the poison ricin. We had operative information that the ricin was not produced in Pankisi, but certainly components for producing ricin were delivered to Pankisi. We contacted our counterparts in Great Britain; so far we have not received any official response as to who produced the ricin discovered in London and whether there was indeed any connection to Pankisi.
With regard to Abkhazia, unfortunately, the situation is not changing. The Georgian government encounters certain problems for continuing the mandate of the peacekeepers because the refugees expelled from Abkhazia are resolutely opposed to their continued presence. The situation has been compounded by the opening of the rail link from Sochi to Sukhumi and the issuance of Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia. The refugees have lost all of their hope and trust in the peacekeepers, since they are not doing their job properly. The refugees have also lost their faith in the international community, especially the United Nations. Yet the active participation of international organizations in the Abkhazian issue could prove very helpful.
Even though the recent Cabinet reshuffle ordered by Vladislav Ardzinba may give the impression that he controls the situation, in reality there is a total absence of law enforcement and the situation is very grave. Wahhabi organizations have sprung up on the territory of Abkhazia, and where Wahhabis are, terrorists are not far behind. The terrorists who were behind the hostage taking on the ship "Avrasia" [seized in January 1996 in Turkish waters] are still in Abkhazia. According to our information, Abkhazia has been turned into a transit point for the smuggling of narcotics and radioactive materials. We have no illusions; if the Georgian government has had a hard time controlling the situation in Pankisi, it will be even harder to take control of Abkhazia and cleanse it of terrorists and other unwanted criminal elements.