WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The United States said on Thursday it would not support Russian President Vladimir Putin if he carried out his threat to attack Chechen rebel bases in Georgia and slammed him for suggesting he might.
Putin’s statement that he was asking his army to sketch out proposals on possible strikes came on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
He said Russia had evidence rebels in Georgia’s remote Pankisi Gorge helped plan the hijacked airliner attacks that killed 3,000 people–and were directly involved in 1999 apartment block blasts that killed about 300 Russia’s.
"The United States strongly supports Georgia’s territorial integrity and would oppose any unilateral military action by Russia inside Georgia," a State Department spokesman told Reuters in Washington.
"We take strong exception to statemen’s yesterday by President Putin threatening unilateral action against Chechen targets on Georgian territory if Georgia does not capture and hand over Chechen fighters," he added.
A US official said on condition of anonymity that Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to raise the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at UN meetings in New York which they are both attending.
US officials also raised the issue with Russia’s ambassador in Washington and with authorities in Moscow. But no information was immediately available on the outcome of these contacts.
"We believe firmly that problems in the Pankisi Gorge should be addressed by the Georgian government and they are doing so. We support Georgia’s continuing efforts to get the Chechen fighters to leave Georgia," the spokesman’said.
US military experts have been in Georgia since May–carrying out a $64 million training program to turn its ramshackle army into a force capable of confronting the guerrillas.
"We urge Russia to coordinate with Georgia so that both countries operating within their respective territories can deal with the question of international terroristsand any Chechen fighters," the spokesman’said.
Russia rammed home its warning Thursday–saying UN resolutions gave it the right to carry out its threat if Georgia did not take action.
Putin’s words were reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s challenge to the United Nations on Thursday to take action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Anxious to get international support to take action against the rebels in Georgia–Moscow has also drawn parallels between its security problem and India’s challenge from Pakistan-based militants who attack targets in Jammu and Kashmir.
But the United States has resisted such comparisons.
Russian Duma: Cut Georgia’s Energy Supply
Russia’s parliament sought on Friday to cut power supplies to energy-starved Georgia for failing to destroy Chechen bases–defying sharp US criticism of Kremlin threats to hit rebel camps in the neighboring state.
Russian media buzzed with talk of a ‘deal’ under which Moscow would lift its objections to US military strikes on Iraq if given US leave to hit Chechen guerrillas in Georgia.
But Washington has so far rejected Moscow’s attempts to equate Chechen militants with the al Qaeda network–hunted by US forces in Afghanistan as part of the "war on terrorism" launched after last September’s attacks on the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote to world leaders on Thursday warning them that Moscow might attack Chechen guerrilla bases in Georgia unless Tbilisi acted to destroy the rebels–who are said to have bases in the remote Pankisi Gorge.
That brought swift overnight condemnation from Washington–reaffirmed on Friday by Undersecretary of State John Bolton.
"I don’t see that there are really any quid pro quos to be had (on Iraq)–whether with Russia or others," he told a Moscow news conference.
A State Duma lower house of parliament resolution hailed Putin’s stance and said Russia’should reconsider "economic aid to Georgia–including the supply of energy at favorable rates–given the failure of the Georgian leadership to take effective measures to fight international terrorism on its territory."
"Russia has the right under UN rules to use preventive measures against the country from which the threat comes," said Gennady Raikov–leader of the leftist People’s Deputy group in the Duma. "That means bombing those camps and bases."
Gas supplies to Georgia were cut last winter over payment arrears which total $90 million. The volatile–impoverished state also owes Russia $40 million for electricity supplies.
The debts represent a large chunk of its $572 million 2002 budget–and Georgia has complained that Russia uses its energy supplies to bully its tiny southern neighbor.
Russia–the former imperial power–is incensed that Georgia has failed to oust Chechen guerrillas from Pankisi Gorge and rebuffed its offers to do the job for them.
It mocks as a publicity stunt Tbilisi’s dispatch of 1,000 police to the region last month–and views with suspicion a US program to train Georgian forces to clear the gorge.
Georgy Gachechiladze–Georgia’s economy and trade minister–said sanctions would be "very difficult for us as Russia is our biggest trade partner….But I really hope (the Duma) won’t take such a stupid step"
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has not yet responded to Moscow’s second public chiding by the United States over Georgia in a month. In August–the White House accused Russia of bombing a village near Pankisi Gorge. Moscow denied the charge.