#14 - JRL 7187
Russia Official Criticizes Georgia's Chechen Rebel Stance
May 19, 2003
DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP)--Some 700 rebels move back and forth regularly from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge to Chechnya, a top Russian prosecutor said Monday as tensions re-emerged over Georgia's allegedly soft stance toward the separatists fighting government forces in southern Russia .
Deputy Russian Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky briefed reporters on the latest developments in the more than 3 1/2-year-old Chechen war. He said that investigators suspected three women had taken part in a suicide bombing at a religious ceremony Wednesday, and that attack and a truck bombing two days earlier may have been planned by the same people. At least 77 people were killed in the two attacks.
Fridinsky also said that a "pretty big sum of money" had been sent from abroad to carry out terrorist acts in Chechnya. The militants were coming from abroad as well, he said.
"At present, there is a group of up to 700 people who periodically conduct military activity and travel from Chechnya to the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia and back again," Fridinsky said.
Russian-Georgian relations have long been strained over the rebel presence in the gorge and Georgia's rejection of Moscow's demands to let its troops flush the rebels out. Georgia launched an operation last summer to search the gorge for suspected militants, but Moscow called the operation largely ineffective.
Tensions faded somewhat after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze agreed last autumn on some joint measures to improve security on the border, and after Georgia extradited several suspected rebels whom it had detained.
However, Georgia's Supreme Court ruled Friday that three alleged Chechen rebels shouldn't be extradited to Russia and said they should stand trial in Georgia instead.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov accused Georgia of reneging on a high-level agreement to extradite suspected rebels to Russia .
"I see the Georgian side's latest judicial decision not to extradite them as a failure to fulfill the agreement that had been achieved," Ivanov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Meanwhile, a Chechen regional police chief was killed overnight in a clash with rebels, ITAR-Tass and the Interfax news agency reported. Shakhid Muguyev, chief of police in the southern Vedeno region, was killed by automatic weapons fire, the two agencies reported. Muguyev had been on the job only two months, Interfax said.
Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya in 1996 after a devastating 20-month war, leaving the region under separatist control. They returned in 1999 after rebel attacks in neighboring Dagestan and after about 300 people died in apartment-building explosions that Russian officials blamed on militants from the region.