Russia has brought new accusations against neighboring Georgia. Moscow has long alleged that the South Caucasus republic is encouraging international terrorism by condoning the activities of Chechen separatist fighters based on its territory. Now, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has charged that makeshift laboratories have been set up near Georgia’s border with Chechnya and are being used to manufacture ricin, a potent toxin that has potential to be used in terrorist attacks.
Prague, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — Addressing the Munich Conference on Security Policy on 8 February, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed that alleged « chemical terrorists » recently arrested in Britain and France had been trained in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Ivanov said that makeshift laboratories had been built in the Pankisi region and were being used to produce ricin, a poisonous toxin derived from the castor-bean plant that can be used as a chemical-warfare agent.
On 20 January, a British police raid on a London mosque ended with the arrest of a number of North African Islamic militants with alleged ties to Chechnya and Afghanistan. The raid was tied to the earlier discovery of ricin in a London apartment.
Reports say British authorities are looking into a possible Pankisi connection. British media recently quoted unidentified intelligence sources as saying that Al-Qaeda militants might have set up facilities for producing ricin in Pankisi after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The United States, in efforts to prove its case against Iraq, has also hinted at the possibility of Pankisi-based chemical facilities.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council on 5 February, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Iraqi regime was harboring Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, a suspected terrorist of Palestinian descent who is believed to have links with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Powell said that al-Zarqawi and his associates — among them two Islamic militants arrested in France — had been active in Pankisi and Chechnya and were planning gas attacks against Russia. « We…know that Zarqawi’s colleagues have been active in the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia, and in Chechnya, Russia. The plotting to which they are linked is not mere chatter. Members of Zarqawi’s network said their goal was to kill Russians with toxins, » Powell said.
Powell offered no hard evidence to sustain his claims, and France has expressed skepticism about al-Zarqawi’s alleged links to a so-called « Chechen network. » But the Kremlin has argued that the recent string of arrests and allegations serves only to prove that both Chechnya and Pankisi are nests of international terrorism.
Georgian authorities insist that there is no material evidence to suggest that ricin or other lethal substances have ever been manufactured in Pankisi.
Georgian Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania admitted on 17 January that various ricin components might have been transported through Pankisi en route to Chechnya. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze also told reporters that « one or two » Pankisi-based militants might have been chemical experts. But he stressed that no such individuals remained in the region.
Russia has long accused Georgia of harboring militants in the Pankisi Gorge. During his remarks in Munich, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov dismissed Georgian claims that security sweeps have cleansed the country of unwanted residents. Ivanov said Chechen criminal rings continue to use Georgia as a base for smuggling drugs and weapons into Chechnya.
The head of Georgia’s Intelligence Department, Avtandil Ioseliani, yesterday rejected the accusations, saying it is « much easier to smuggle weapons into Georgia from Chechnya than vice versa. »
Also yesterday, Shevardnadze defended Georgia’s success in cleansing Pankisi of armed militants. « Some representatives of ‘friendly’ Russia, in particular Defense Minister Ivanov, keep claiming that nothing has been done in Pankisi. I would kindly advise them, and not only Ivanov, that Russia should deal with Chechnya, with the Chechen problem. Georgia will take care of the Pankisi problem, » Shevardnadze said.
Bordering Chechnya to the south, Pankisi is a tiny mountainous area that Moscow has long described as a springboard for separatist attacks on Russian troops attempting to regain control of the breakaway republic.
The gorge is home both to ethnic Chechens, known as Kists, and to thousands of refugees who have fled Chechnya since the beginning of the first Russian military campaign there in 1994. It has also served for many years as a base for criminal rings specializing in various smuggling activities.
After months of inaction, Georgia on 25 August 2002 launched a security crackdown aimed at reasserting its control over Pankisi. In addition to a handful of wanted criminals, Georgian law-enforcement agencies reportedly arrested a few armed militants with alleged links to Al-Qaeda and handed them over to the United States.
Neither the nationality nor the identity of these radical militants has been disclosed, but regional analysts doubt they are Chechens.
Authorities in Tbilisi have always denied supporting Chechen militants, saying separatist fighters have been purposely driven into the remote Pankisi area by Russian armed forces.
Video materials released by Georgia’s Security Ministry and posted on 20 January on the Civil Georgia information website purportedly show that, prior to the security operation, Pankisi harbored up to 700 Chechen fighters and 100 Arab mercenaries. Reversing months of denials, the Georgian ministry now says the armed militants had set up training bases, field hospitals, and religious schools in the area.
Georgia maintains that thanks to intelligence data shared by the United States and Russia, the Pankisi sweep has been a success and that, with the exception of approximately 60 wanted criminals, the area has been cleansed of all its unwanted residents. On 6 February, President Shevardnadze urged security forces to fully restore law and order in Pankisi before the spring thaw makes it easier for separatist fighters to cross the mountain ridge that separates Chechnya from Georgia.
Critics both at home and abroad believe Moscow’s efforts to fit Chechnya, and Pankisi, into broader concerns about international terrorism stem primarily from its failure to quell the separatist movement in the breakaway republic, where Russia’s second war has entered its fourth year with thousands of casualties on both sides.
In a veiled rebuke of those countries in the West that have yet to support Russia’s claims, Ivanov on 8 February called upon the international community to remain united in the global fight against terrorism. « To date, we [should all] give ourselves a thought as to how important it is to keep the unity of the antiterrorist coalition intact, to maintain the momentum gained in the present cooperation. Otherwise, our concerted action would prove to be rather ineffectual, » Ivanov said.
Although the Russian minister did not mention any country by name, his comments were apparently aimed at Germany, which he claims is hosting a number of Chechen organizations allegedly linked to international terrorism.
Ivanov’s comments may also have been meant for the U.S. administration, which has been dragging its feet on Russian requests to include a number of Chechen guerrilla groups on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Pressed on 30 January by journalists to say whether the United States would meet the Russian request, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher would say only that Washington was « still looking » at the issue.
But, as Russian security-affairs expert Amy Knight wrote yesterday in Toronto’s Globe and Mail daily, Powell’s recent comments show that Washington, eager to win Russia’s support in its standoff with Iraq, is at least « giving credence to the unproven theory that international terrorists are providing support for Chechen rebels. »
Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.