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There are no terrorists in Pankisi and everyone can see this

By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Friday, October 30
Following the Russian Federal Security Service’s claims that Georgian secret services were assisting “Al Qaeda emissaries” in sending fighters and arms to Chechnya and Dagestan the Christian Democrats organised a trip to Pankisi Gorge on October 29 in which a group of journalists, political analysts and diplomats monitoring the situation for themselves and observed the conditions in the region.

“For Georgians it is clear that the Russian allegations are groundless… But we should let foreigners see with their own eyes the situation on the ground. We should counter Russia’s disinformation campaign with the truth, which is here on the ground,” MP Giorgi Targamadze said.

The group visited three villages, Duisi, Jokola and Dzibakhevi, where they held meetings with members of the local population, who categorically denied the Russian allegations, stating that they had not even heard any shooting in the gorge. People in Duisi also denied that there had been any doubtful movements on the border. Locals said in fact that there had been unprecedented calmness in Pankisi Gorge over the last few years. They allege that the existence of armed formations in the Gorge is a fiction.

The locals emphasised that it is impossible to go straight to Chechnya or Ingushetia from Pankisi Gorge, as these places have no common border with Pankisi Gorge. Duisi residents stated that it is hard not only for strangers but even ethnic Kists and Chechens to go to Chechnya, as border controls have been increased. The locals say that the area between Pankisi Gorge, Chechnya and Ingushetia is mountain, not forest, and this also enders it impossible that unnoticed movements are taking place.

Residents of Duisi say that the border is closed in winter due to snow and it is impossible to cross the border either on foot or by horse. “Since Shevardnadze’s time, there has been peace in the Gorge; we have not even heard any shooting. I do not understand why they are releasing false information. My whole family lives here, including the small children, and I want to assure you that there is no kind of threat there, as some claim,” 70 year old Seriozha Duishvili told The Messenger, adding that he and the whole of the Pankisi population are very thankful to President Saakashvili and his Government as they do not live in such terrible conditions as they did in the previous President’s time. Pankisi Gorge residents say that the Georgian Border police work 24 hours a day and if there is any kind of threat this will not escape their attention as they control the borders very carefully.

In his briefing in Dzibakhevi, the last populated village in Pankisi Gorge, which is surrounded by high mountains, Giorgi Targamadze summed up the Pankisi trip.

“Today, after spending a whole day here we can state for sure that there is peace in Pankisi Gorge. There is no sign of anything which could give any credence to the allegation which Russia has made against Georgia. We plan to continue making trips to this region under the auspices of the Monitoring Group and offering representatives of the diplomatic corps and media representatives the opportunity to visit together the places mentioned in Russia’s disinformation. One thing is clear, that the situation is fully under control in Pankisi, people continue living here in an ordinary way and want peace, work and education,” Targamadze stated at the briefing yesterday.

The Monitoring Group was formed on the initiative of the parliamentary minority leader after Russian officials voiced allegations connecting Georgian intelligence with Al Qaeda and alleging that Al Qaeda terrorists were present in Pankisi Gorge. MPs agreed that they had to inspect the remote region to convince the international community that Georgia has no ties with terrorists.

Diplomats accredited in Georgia assess the situation in Pankisi Gorge as calm, they said after a meeting with the population of the villages of Duisi and Jokola. The representative of the Latvian Ambassador stated that the problems in the Gorge are of a social nature. He stated that they have to think of what can be done to stop the speculation about what is going on in the Gorge. The assistant to the Swiss Ambassador to Georgia stated that the situation he was introduced to in Pankisi doesn’t reflect the statements made by Russia recently. He said there are no signs of tension in the Gorge. He noted that Russia must prove its allegations, or they will be considered irresponsible.

“We have been invited by Georgian MPs and are glad to have the chance of getting familiar with the situation in Pankisi. China and its Embassy here in Georgia are very much interested in seeing stability here in this region and for economic development to continue. We are particularly interested in peace and stability in this location because a few kilometres from here is the hydro power station built by Chinese investment in Georgia, which is functioning well today. We want it to continue functioning in future as well,” HE Ambassador of China Gong Jianwei told The Messenger.

“We are here to follow up on certain allegations made by the Russian authorities that Al Qaeda elements are being harboured here in Pankisi Gorge, and as far as I can judge, I have seen nothing and met no one which supports such a claim. What is important is not what is happening here today but that if you make such a claim, which is very severe, you should be able to back it up with evidence. We have a vulnerable situation in the region, and if you put forward such groundless allegations, as they seem to be, this is not helpful at all, rather the opposite,” said Andreas Tuvesson, Charge d’Affaires of the Swedish Embassy in Georgia. “The aim of this visit was to become aware of the situation, and from what we saw and heard from the population of the region there is nothing going on here that we can consider as a threat,” said Mojtaba Damirchiloo, the Iranian Ambassador to Georgia.

Military analyst Irakli Aladashvili said that when in conflict zones the first things he sees are checkpoints full of police and guards, but today he saw no special forces in Pankisi except the local policemen who are always serving the population as in other regions of the country. “We feel that it is peaceful here and no strained or tensed situation is detected,” Aladashvili told the paper.

Pankisi Gorge, in the mountainous northeast of Georgia close to the Russian border, was a major irritant in Russo-Georgian relations for several years from late 2001 onwards. Over 7,000 Chechen refugees settled in Pankisi Gorge shortly after the second Russian-Chechen war began in 1999. Their number has dwindled since then and it is believed that there are now about 1,000 Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge.