TBILISI - Georgia's foreign minister said Georgian, Russian and U.S. officials may hold three-way talks on the controversy surrounding the Pankisi Gorge, where Moscow asserts hundreds of Chechen rebels and international terrorists have taken refuge, posing a grave threat to Russia's security.
Irakly Menagarishvili told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television late Thursday from New York that Washington had suggested the talks. He said Tedo Dzhaparidze, secretary of the National Security Council, would represent Georgia. Dzhaparidze departed for Washington on Thursday for a previously planned visit.
"If the Russian side refuses to participate, the consultations will continue in a a bilateral format," Menagarishvili said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are both in Washington for security talks with their U.S. counterparts. Ivanov told reporters there that Moscow was prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes against Chechen rebels in Georgian territory.
Lt. Gen. Nikolai Reznichenko, first deputy director of Russia's Federal Border Service, told a Moscow news conference Friday that more than 500 Chechen rebels were concentrated in Pankisi. He said some of them were preparing for a new attack on Chechnya and some were headed for the Kodori Gorge near Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia. The rest would take shelter in Azerbaijan and Turkey, he said.
Georgia recently began a police operation in the gorge, but Moscow maintains it has been ineffective.
Georgian police forces sweeping the gorge have detained 26 people since the start of the operation in late August - 20 ethnic Chechens and one man believed to be a national of an Arab country carrying a fake French passport. Five of the detainees were freed Friday after Georgian and Russian officials confirmed they were not wanted for any crimes, said Maya Musidze, a Georgian Interior Ministry spokeswoman.
Also Friday, three unidentified armed men entered Georgia illegally from Russian territory, said Shalva Londaridze, spokesman for the Georgian border guards service. They returned to Russia within about 15 minutes, after receiving a radio message instructing them to leave the territory "and go back to your place of deployment because the Georgian border guards may act against you," Londaridze said, speculating that they could have been either Chechens or Russian servicemen.
Reznichenko said Russia had beefed up its forces on the Georgian border, and he voiced support for the defense minister's proposal of preventive strikes. He said a so-called security zone that some Russian officials have proposed to straddle the Russian-Georgian border could include joint patrols with Georgian forces or resemble a zone Russian forces established on the Afghan-Tajik border in the 1990s to launch preventive strikes on fighters from Tajik opposition forces.
"If we create such a zone on Georgian territory with the agreement of our Georgian colleagues, I think bandits won't find a place there," Reznichenko said.
Washington believes fighters connected with the al-Qaida terror network have also been in the gorge, but has backed Georgia's right to deal with the problem on its own. U.S. military instructors are currently training an anti-terrorism force for the Georgian military.