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Security Ministry Unveils Classified Details on Pankisi
/ 20 Jan.'03 / 14:21

The Ministry of State Security disclosed classified materials of Pankisi gorge, including video tapes, which prove presence of Chechen and Arab militants and their training camps, various terrorist objects and persons, linked with Al-Qaeda in Pankisi.

"These materials are not operatively important today and therefore, we have decided to disclose them. However, we also have quite many other materials, which we can not make public at the moment," Nika Laliashvili, Spokesman for the Georgian State Security Ministry told Civil Georgia.

The footage publicized by the Security Ministry depicts movements of very well-equipped fighters in the gorge. According to the Ministry's information, there were around 700 Chechen and 100 Arab fighters in the gorge, which is only 30 kilometers in length.

The Ministry named all the field commanders that have ever found shelter in Pankisi. These are: Ruslan (Hamzat) Gelaev, who had 200-250 fighters in his group and who's arrest and extradition was repeatedly requested by Russia; someone called Batia ("Short") with 100-120 fighters, Doka Omarov (Hasanov) with 130-150 fighters, Husein Esebaev (Isibaev) with 130-140 fighters and Amjet (Abu Hapsi) - commander of 80 mojaheddins.

Most of these commanders were more or less known to the public, however information about Amjet has been released for the first time. As the security official says, this person was very close to Osama Bin-Laden and is wanted by Interpol.

"Amjet was coordinating construction of a military hospital in Pankisi, receiving funds directly from Al-Qaeda," Laliashvili told Civil Georgia.

Several minutes after the September 11 attacks, the American special services registered a mobile phone call from Afghanistan to Pankisi. The Ministry of State Security thinks that this call could be addressed to Amjet.

The Ministry also reports that Amjet, as well as the biggest part of Chechen and Arab fighters fled from the gorge after the active anti-criminal operation, conducted by the Georgian law enforcers in Pankisi in August 2002.

"We do not know where he could be at present. Part of the fighters managed to enter Chechnya, other part dropped their weapons and entered different countries with faked passports," the Ministry's Spokesman says.

Laliashvili stated that the Arab emissaries were very well organized. Along with the fighters, there also were Arab religious emissaries ("Spiritual Fathers of Wahabism") in the Pankisi gorge, who were responsible for functioning of the wahabist schools in Pankisi.

There were several such schools in the gorge, where children were taught wahhabi ideology. "There are children in Pankisi, who speak Arab better than Georgian," Laliashvili told Civil Georgia.

There also was an Internet center in Pankisi, with several notebook computers and a satellite communication system, used for propaganda and volunteer recruitment activities.

"By the way, such propaganda draw one Japanese citizen to the gorge, who was later captured by the Georgian law enforcers," Laliashvili says.

Along with wahabist schools and the Internet center, the gorge also had several fighters' training centers as well.

"We have recovered textbooks from these centers, which gives the detail explanation how to explode residential buildings, make explosive devices and so on," Laliashvili said.

The Georgian State Security Ministry does not rule out the possible link between the London poison case and Pankisi. Laliashvili says the deadly poison ricin, which emerged most dramatically when traces of the poison and facilities for its production were discovered in north London on January 5, could be produced in Pankisi gorge.

State Security Ministry reports that the militants in Pankisi had excellent financial support. They were receiving money directly from Al-Qaeda. However, as the security official says, after September 11, when accounts of organizations, linked with terrorists, were frozen, militants in Pankisi started experiencing difficulties and received financial aid only in cash.

Georgian authorities claim that governmental control over Pankisi is re-established. "This is the result of one year intensive work and the anti-criminal operation carried out in the gorge," Nika Laliashvili stated.

The Ministry started working on restoring order in Pankisi in January 2002. First step was a detailed investigation of situation in the gorge.

Operative investigative operations also were in progress at that time. Finally they have evolved into a large-scale anti-criminal operation, in result of which Chechen and Arab fighters have left the gorge. Security Minister Valeri Khaburdzania has refrained from naming specific measures used from cleaning the gorge from the militants and called them "operative push-out activities." In the end of November 2002 the government officially declared that it has restored full control over Pankisi.

The Ministry's Spokesman told Civil Georgia that collection of this information and restoration of order in Pankisi was made possible with tight cooperation with the US and Russian special services.

"This triangle was very successful. Certain individuals and groups in Pankisi were wanted by each of the three states," Laliashvili said.

According to the information of the Ministry of State Security, the kidnapping cases were not necessarily connected with the Chechen or Arab groups. Khaburdzania said, in some cases the Chechen and Arab commanders were confronting the criminal groups involved in kidnappings for ransom. The minister also added, that almost all kidnapping cases were carried out by several groups: interest groups who ordered the kidnappings, professional kidnappers, and several "keeping" groups.

These activities heavily involved Georgian and Kistine criminals, as well as some Chechens. According to the information of the Ministry, the chances are low that there are any kidnapped individuals in Pankisi at present. The doubts are that only kidnapped monk Vasili Machtadze can be currently in the gorge.

Georgian law enforcers say that there are only several criminals left in the gorge, but they are not linked with Chechen and Arab fighters. Laliashvili did not rule out that there might be several fighters remaining in the gorge as well. As he said the State Security and the Interior ministries are conducting operative activities to reveal them.

"Our main task today is to do anything necessary so that new groups of fighters won't enter Georgia from Chechnya in the spring," Laliashvili said.

By Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

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