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Monday, 28 February, 2000, 15:58 GMT
Georgia fears Chechnya escalation

Russian soldiers try to prevent Chechens crossing into Georgia
Russian soldiers are trying to prevent Chechens crossing into Georgia


Georgia is strengthening security along its mountainous northern border with Chechnya after a battle near the frontier between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russian military sources said the battle took place as Chechen guerrillas attempted to evacuate their leaders to Georgia last week.

The fighting took place 10km (six miles) inside Chechen territory, and there were casualties on both sides.

"The Russians surrounded the rebels and were tightening the noose, but the Chechens split up into smaller groups to attempt a break for the border," the Interfax news agency reported.

Cross-border operations

Russia's border guard chief, Konstantin Totsky, has alleged that 1,000 Chechen militants are hiding on the Georgian side of the border - leading some analysts to speculate whether Russia might launch air raids against Georgian territory.


We have not given and will not give a pretext for the spread of combat operations from Chechnya to Georgia
Eduard Shevardnadze
Last week Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ordered the reinforcement of border guard units to ensure that Chechen fighters could not infiltrate the country and provide Russia with a pretext for cross-border operations.

On Monday he told a briefing in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, that the border had been reliably sealed.

Click here for map

"We have not given and will not give a pretext for the spread of combat operations from Chechnya to Georgia," he said.

Mr Shevardnadze acknowledged that extra measures would have to be taken after the snow melts in April to tighten controls in areas that are snow-bound over the winter.

Refugees

The border is 80km (50 miles) long, and is crossed by numerous small mountain paths, as well as a road at the town of Shatili.

On the Georgian side of the border the inhabitants include a community of 5,000 ethnic Chechens.

Georgian officials say there are also 7,000 Chechen refugees in the country, of which 1,000 are men of fighting age.

50 new graduates of Moscow's Military Institute are bound for Chechnya 50 new graduates of Moscow's Military Institute are bound for Chechnya
They say all have been checked to verify that they do not belong to rebel fighting units, and that there have been no new arrivals since January.

In November Georgia accused Russia of dropping mines on its territory near the village of Omalo.

Russia has charged that Georgia allows Chechen fighters to operate training bases on its territory.

Georgia has countered with claims that Russian army bases in Georgia have been selling arms to the Chechens.

At Georgia's request, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has sent unarmed observers to monitor developments in the border region.

The UK Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Friday that he had deliberately visited the country at a time when the situation on the border was tense.

He added that the UK was ready to support proposals to strengthen the OSCE monitoring operation if necessary.

Georgia has refused to allow Russian forces to operate on the Georgian side of the border.

New army unit

Russia has dropped paratroopers at points along the border, and has a concentration of troops at the town of Itum-Kale near the top of the Argun gorge.

Russian border guards from Arctic regions have been drafted in to help.

From Itum-Kale, Russian forces are closing in on the last Chechen stronghold in the town of Shatoi, as other Russian troops fight their way up the gorge from the lowlands.

Russia has created a new army unit to lead the attack on Shatoi. Its commander, General Vladimir Bulgakov, said the rebels could not hold out for much longer.

Federal military sources said last week they had reconnaissance data that 2,000 Chechen troops, led by the field commander Ruslan Gelayev, were preparing to break out and to cross into Georgia.






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See also:
28 Feb 00 |  Europe
Human rights visit to Grozny
11 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russians move to the mountains
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Fighting in key Chechen gorge
23 Oct 99 |  Europe
Georgia fears all-Caucasus war
08 Nov 99 |  Europe
Georgia says no to Russian troops
24 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russia seals rebel escape route
17 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Chechnya making regional waves
19 Nov 99 |  Europe
Georgia protests over Russian 'attack'
22 Nov 99 |  Europe
Georgia's Shevardnadze slams Russian visa plans

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