SLUG: 2-294109 Russia Georgia (L-O)
TITLE=RUSSIA / GEORGIA (L-O)
INTRO: In a published interview, a senior Russian official says that despite recent problems, Russia considers Georgia a good friend and neighbor. But V-O-A's Rebecca Santana reports from Moscow, the official gave no indication that Russia is withdrawing its accusations that Tbilisi is harboring terrorists on Georgian territory.
TEXT: Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov told the Kommersant newspaper that Moscow is only concerned with stopping the Chechen rebels based in Georgia, not overthrowing the government of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. He said Moscow has no desire to depose Mr. Shevardnadze.
He described Georgia as a good friend to Moscow and pointed out the large number of Georgian people living in Russia.
The defense minister's comments follow an announcement last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin said if Georgia was not willing to oust the rebels that he said were based in the Pankisi Gorge section of Georgia, Russia might use its own military force to do so.
The gorge lies along the border between Georgia and the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Moscow accuses Georgia of allowing Chechen fighters to travel between the gorge and Chechnya.
In the interview, Mr. Ivanov repeated Moscow's charge that Georgia has been harboring Chechen separatists. According to Mr. Ivanov, many of the separatists are even allowed to roam freely in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
He also said there are members of the al-Qaida terrorist network in the Pankisi Gorge.
There has been no official Georgian response to the interview. But Georgian President Shevardnadze has said in the past his government is doing all it can to clean up the Pankisi Gorge.
In August he sent about one-thousand Georgian soldiers into the gorge, but the military operation was announced ahead of time, giving the rebels time to flee. Russia denounced the Georgian action as a public relations move.
At a news conference in Tbilisi, President Shevardnadze played down recent reports that the Russian military had drawn up plans for military action against Georgia.
/// SHEVARDNADZE ACT IN RUSSIAN FADE UNDER ///
Headquarters can produce 100 of these plans, I also give some tasks to my headquarters, to Georgian ministry of defense.
The Georgian President said he is eager to talk with Russian President Putin about this issue. (SIGNED)
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