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Putin Defends Plan to Pursue Chechen Guerrillas in Georgia

By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser

The two sides in the long-running war in Chechnya have moved in radically different directions in recent days as the Kremlin threatens to widen the conflict to neighboring Georgia while Chechen rebel leaders embrace a plan to end the fighting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a letter to world leaders Thursday attempting to justify strikes against presumed Chechen rebel encampments in Georgia, modeling his rationale after that of President Bush on the same day the American leader sought international support for an attack on Iraq.

“If the Georgian leadership does not take concrete actions to destroy the (Chechen) terrorists, and bandit incursions continue from its territory, Russia will take appropriate measures to counteract the terrorist threat, in strict accordance with international law,” Putin wrote to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan SM ’72 and the Security Council. Putin’s defense minister said a target list would be ready within days.

Chechen guerrillas have used the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia as a haven since the second war with Russia began in 1999, hiding out among thousands of civilian refugees who live there. U.S. officials have also asserted that a few dozen terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida have moved to Pankisi, and the Pentagon recently dispatched U.S. Special Forces to train Georgian troops to fight them.

While Russia has rattled sabers before, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze made it clear that he considered the latest Putin warning genuine. “When the president of such a big country makes threats, it’s serious,” he said as he opened an emergency session of his national security council Thursday afternoon. Shevardnadze pointed the finger back at Russia, which he blamed for driving Chechen rebels over the border. “It was not we who created the Pankisi problem.”

The hardening stance by Moscow contrasts with recent overtures by Chechen leaders interested in launching peace negotiations with Russia.