IN THE PANKISI GORGE, Georgia—The snows are melting in the upper ramparts of the Caucasus Mountains, normally a sign that Islamist terrorists and Chechen rebels will soon be moving into Russia from their winter hideouts here in Georgia.
But for the first time in a decade, in what appears to be a tangible victory for anti-terrorism efforts in the region, Chechen fighters haven't used the Pankisi Gorge for winter shelter and sanctuary.
"It's clean here now," said Peter Tsiskarishvili, the young, U.S.-educated governor of the region that includes the Pankisi. "We used to have terrorists, yes. And hiding behind them were criminals and kidnappers."
He said three years of Georgian army patrols—along with American military advice, a deployment of European border monitors and "a lot of tough police work"—have expelled the terrorists, the drug smugglers and the highwaymen from the Pankisi.
Even the Russians seem to agree.
Senior officials in Moscow no longer accuse the Georgian side of being soft on Pankisi, as they have for years.
Salome Zurabishvili, the Georgian foreign minister, said recently in Moscow that the Pankisi issue wasn't even mentioned in her talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
In recent years, the gorge, which leads to the mountainous Russian border and into Chechnya, was notorious as a combination hospital, health spa and armory for weary Chechen fighters. The local Muslim population welcomed and acclaimed them as freedom fighters, and the Chechen rebels used the Pankisi to rest, re-arm and tend to their wounds.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said al-Qaida used the gorge from 2000-2002 to build chemical and biological weapons.
The gorge is actually more of a broad valley, about 10 miles long, with several forlorn villages strung out along a rutted main road and two shallow rivers. Although there are orchards, vineyards and wineries at the entrance to the gorge, the locals are mostly subsistence farmers.
Radical Wahhabism—a sect of Islam supported by Saudi Arabia—found its way into the Pankisi during the late 1990s, as young Chechen fighters were sent to Saudi Arabia for guerrilla training and returned with a new religious fervor.
"When Wahhabism was introduced into the gorge, it divided fathers and sons here," said Meka, a 33-year-old woman from the Pankisi village of Duisi. She declined to give her surname.
"The older, traditional Muslims still can't cope with their Wahhabi sons. The tension still exists."
Meka said Saudi money—along with some misappropriated humanitarian aid—was used to build a Wahhabi-dominated mosque in Pankisi. A tidy building of cream-colored brick, with a small stand of apple trees in the backyard, it's known as the Sons' Mosque.
As acts of terror in southern Russia have grown more horrific in recent years—especially last year's slaughter of schoolchildren, parents and teachers in Beslan—the rebels and radical Islamists have lost much of their standing in the gorge.
"There are no terrorists here anymore, thank God, and everything is calm," said Sadula Margoshvili, 73, a lifelong Pankisi native.
Then he raised his voice and said angrily, "But we have no water or electricity!"
It can only be encouraging that complaints about shoddy utilities have replaced fears about terrorist training camps.
But Tsiskarishvili said Chechen refugees living in the gorge remain fearful that the Russian military sees them as little more than terrorists on the lam.
"People here are still afraid of being bombed," he said.
"An airplane noise overhead is a real horror, especially for refugee children," said Meka. "They get hysterical."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in March that Russia "reserves the right to carry out preventive strikes on terrorist bases" outside of Russia.
"The Georgian leadership often raises this question, although we've never named Georgia as the target of such a strike," Ivanov said. "Such persistence makes me think of the Russian saying, `He who commits a crime thinks everyone is talking about it.'"
Meanwhile, however, Moscow has succeeded in getting European monitoring teams removed from the Russian-Georgian border. Russian officials said the mission was too costly and had outlived its usefulness.
But Western diplomats said privately that the Russians wanted the monitors removed so that they can fly over the border—and into Georgian territory—whenever they want.
The border-monitoring mission was sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and its unarmed teams are now lugging their equipment down from the thawing mountains.
Zurabishvili said Tuesday she found the Russian position on the monitors "incomprehensible."
"The OSCE monitors were very effective," she said, "despite what the Russians say."
"We were a tripwire, a disincentive (for terrorists) to come through," said Roy Reeve, the veteran diplomat who heads the OSCE mission in Georgia.
"My greatest fear now is that there will be an increase of incidents that will destabilize the region."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PANKISI-TERRORISTS
Need to map