MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russian President Vladimir Putin told his military on Wednesday to consider launching strikes inside Georgia if the former Soviet state failed to end rebel incursions across their common border.
Putin chose the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States to issue his harshest warning yet to Georgia–which Moscow says has failed to flush out Chechen separatists staging raids over the border.
"I am asking the military staff to provide proposals on whether it is possible and expedient to launch strikes on bases of terrorists reliably identified in intelligence operations," Putin said in an 10-minute statement broadcast on television.
Addressing representatives of security ministries in the resort of Sochi–he said Russia knew that rebels now in Georgia had helped prepare last year’s attacks in the United States and 1999 apartment block blasts which killed some 300 people in Moscow and other Russian cities.
"Today–no one can deny – and we know this for certain–confirmed by foreign information sources – that entrenched on Georgian territory are those who were involved in preparing the terrorist acts in the United States last year…," Putin said.
He did not elaborate or name his information sources. Russia has long said that rebels operating in Chechnya have links with a "terrorist international" spreading across the Middle East and Asia.
Georgia has also acknowledged that guerrillas hiding in Pankisi may have links with the Al Qaeda network believed responsible for the September 11 attacks.
A stern-looking Putin said Georgia had failed to create a ‘zone of security’ on the border and Russia "reserves the right to act in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter…for the inalienable right of individual or collective self-defense."
"None of this will be necessary–no measures or operations will be required if Georgia’s leadership truly takes control of its territory–fulfills its international operations…and halts possible attacks by international terrorists from its territory onto (Russian) territory," he said.
There was no immediate reaction to Putin’s statement from Georgian officials.
Russia has issued increasingly strident warnings to Georgia in recent weeks to flush out rebels it says launch attacks from the remote Pankisi Gorge across the border into Chechnya.
Moscow is engaged in its second post-Soviet campaign against Chechen guerrillas and has dismissed as ineffective the dispatch of 1,000 Georgian troops to hunt them down.
US military instructors have been training the Georgian military to turn it into a fighting force able to tackle the guerrillas. Washington last month sided with Georgia in accusing Russia of bombing the Pankisi Gorge–an action denied by Moscow.
Putin had spoken to US President George W. Bush just after midnight with the intention of being the first foreign leader to offer "sympathy and support" on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Kremlin accounts of the conversation said Putin referred to victims of both last year’s airliner attacks and the 1999 apartment bombings. The Kremlin blames the 1999 bombings on Chechen rebels and uses it in part as grounds for Russia’s current military drive.
Moscow has fully backed the US war on terrorism launched after the September 11 attacks and reoriented its foreign policy to fall in line with US decisions on many strategic issues.
But policy differences remain over Bush’s line that three countries form an ‘axis of evil’ Russia opposes the use of force against Iraq and has moved to expand contacts with Iran and North Korea.