Wednesday, February 27th, 2002
February 27, 2002
Five US military advisers have arrived in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in what is being seen as a possible new front in the US war on terror.
At least US six helicopters have also been sent, and unconfirmed US media reports say up to 200 special forces may be deployed.
The US is stepping in because of reports that fighters allied with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network may have escaped to Georgia.
President George W Bush defended US military plans, after Russia, which has traditionally regarded Georgia as part of its sphere of influence, had criticised the US involvement.
“As long as there is al-Qaeda influence anywhere we will help the host countries rout them and bring them to justice,” Mr Bush said.
The US and Georgia insist that the Americans will not be involved in combat, but will train the Georgian army in how to counter militant activity.
The helicopters – which arrived last autumn – are not equipped for carrying out air attacks, and will be used only to transport men and equipment, officials say.
However, their deployment is the first confirmed arrival of US military hardware in Georgia.
The US forces will have the right to act in self-defence, said a Pentagon spokesman.
The focus of US attention is the remote Pankisi Gorge, close to Georgia’s border with the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Washington is concerned that the Georgian authorities are unable to control the security situation there.
The US and Russia both believe that al-Qaeda suspects may be hiding in the gorge area, where militants who operate in Chechnya are also believed to be based.
But Russian officials are deeply unhappy at the prospect of US involvement, suspecting such co-operation is aimed at reducing their country’s influence.
“We think it could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is difficult as it is. That is our position and Washington is well aware of it,” Russian Foregn Minister Igor Ivanov told ORT public television.
Georgia has been trying to reduce Russian influence over its affairs, sparking an angry war of words between the two countries over recent months.
The BBC’s Stephen Eke says co-operation between the former Soviet republics and the US is viewed with suspicion in Russia.
The exact scale of the US involvement remains unclear.
Several US media outlets, quoting military officials, have reported that up to 200 special forces could be sent in, but this has not been confirmed by either the US Government or Georgia.
Georgia’s Deputy State Security Minister, Irakly Alasania, stressed that all US involvement would be restricted to training.
“There is no question of a joint operation with another country,” he said. “We will use only our forces.”
Correspondents say the Americans are viewing the Georgian operation as a possible new front against global terrorism.
As well as the operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, US troops are actively involved in efforts by the Philippine Government to contain Muslim guerrillas that Washington believes to have links with al-Qaeda.