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Japanese Journalist Tells a Story of Pankisi Hideout
/ 6 Mar.'03 / 16:00

24 Hours Daily Publishes First-Hand Account on Chechens in Georgia

Records and photo materials of a Japanese reporter Kosuke Tsuneoka, published by the Georgian daily “24 Hours” on February 28, depicts in details fact of presence of the Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelaev in Pankisi gorge. The Japanese journalist has spent 5 months with Gelaev’s group in 2001.

The Georgian State Security Ministry unveiled classified details on Pankisi earlier this year. But information, provided by the Japanese journalist, is interesting as a first-hand source of information not only about the situation in the gorge some two years ago, but also about a surprise rally of Gelaev’s group from Pankisi to the Kodori gorge in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia in autumn 2001. The Japanese journalist claims that this action was organized by the Georgian special services.

Civil Georgia had no possibility to validate the reports by the Japanese journalist. The officials declined to substantively comment on the reports as well. The information presented below is for information purposes, hopefully adding one more piece to the jirgsaw puzzle of Pankisi affair.

According to the report Japanese journalist entered Georgia from Turkey in June 2001 and remained with Gelaev’s group in Pankisi from July to December 2001. Tsuneoka reports there was another Japanese national in the gorge – a member of Gelaev’s group.

“In Pankisi, where the Chechen refugees are, Ruslan Gelaev has the strongest and biggest armed group of 600 fighters. He is Chechnya’s defense minister. The fighters are equipped mostly with Russian or Chechen made arms,” reads a fragment from Tsuneoka’s notes, published by the “24 Hours” daily. He mentions that Arman Baraev’s squad is strongest and best trained in Gelaev’s group.

Tsuneoka did not confirm fact of presence of Al-Qaeda fighters in the gorge, as claimed by the State Security Ministry. “There are Turk, Azeri, Afghani Muslim fighters, there is even one Japanese soldier Minami, but no Al-Qaeda members. In fact, some fighters wonder, why Osama Bin Laden is not assisting their movement,” says Tsuneoka.

The Japanese journalist mentions in the notes that the Georgian government does not control Pankisi. “Here is the rule of self-governance, based on Islam laws,” says Tsuneoka. He notes that Gelaev’s influence in the gorge was so big that even the local elders’ councils were consulting him before taking any important decision.

Tsuneoka’s presence in Pankisi has coincided with covert march of Gelaev’s armed group to the Georgian-controlled Kodori gorge in breakaway Abkhazia that took place in September-October, 2001. Tsuneoka happened to be the only journalist to witness this operation.

“Everybody was suddenly told that they were moving back to Chechnya. We took east exit of the gorge. I was sitting in a Georgian army truck. Quite soon I realized that there was a secret agreement between Gelaev and Georgians, that if he could move into Abkhazia, his group would receive weapons and food from Georgians,” Tsuneoka recalls.

Fighting in Kodori started on October 3, 2001. Tsuneoka was also there together with Gelaev and 300 of his fighters. Clashes between Chechen-Georgian armed groups and Abkhazs lasted till mid-October.

Tsuneoka reports that several Georgian, Azeri and Ukrainian fighters fought alongside with Chechens in Kodori. Later the group was joined by some Georgian partisans as well.

The reasons of this surprise rally are obscured with mystery for the Japanese journalist. “It seems to me that Georgians, as well as Americans and NATO was interested in dispatching of Chechen fighters to Kodori,” Tsuneoka supposes.

The “24 Hours” newspaper informs that after failure of the operation, Gelaev left Kodori on a Georgian Defenses Ministry’s helicopter. Apparently, Tsuneoka accompanied him back to Pankisi and remained there until the beginning of December.

That time information emerged in Tbilisi that a Japanese journalist is missing in Pankisi. On December 7, 2001 Tsuneoka appeared in the Georgian Foreign Ministry. The Georgian authorities reported that the Chechen fighters have been detaining Tsuneoka in the gorge, until was freed during a special operation.

As the “24 Hours” newspaper says, Tsuneoka feels well. At this moment the 35 years old reporter is in Iraq.

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