WASHINGTON – Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday his country will not ignore "international terrorists" who have infiltrated neighboring Georgia.
He said they are linked to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network and are "full of new plans for terrorist operations."
Speaking at a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Ivanov said these terrorists had trained in Afghanistan, "committed terrible crimes" in the Russian breakaway province of Chechnya, and are now in Georgia's remote Pankisi Gorge, only a dozen or so miles from Russia's border.
"We cannot just sit and watch those activities indifferently," he said, adding that Moscow had provided the U.S. government a list of hundreds of names of such people with links to Al Qaeda.
At the Georgian government's invitation, the Pentagon is preparing to send perhaps 150 troops to the former Soviet republic to train its armed forces in counterterrorist operations. Some in the Russian parliament have been sharply critical of the plan, but Ivanov gave no indication Wednesday that he opposed it.
Ivanov, speaking through an interpreter, said the issue of fighting terrorists in Georgia is "very sensitive" in Russia. He said American officials had briefed him in detail on what he called a phased approach to the U.S. training in Georgia.
Rumsfeld stressed that he has no intention of putting the Americans into the Pankisi Gorge where they might be drawn into actual combat.
Ivanov said he and Rumsfeld, in two days of talks at the Pentagon, discussed U.S.-Russian cooperation in the global war on terrorism, efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and preparations for President Bush's meeting in May with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rumsfeld said it was likely the United States and Russia would work out a legally binding document outlining their mutual pledge to reduce the number of long-range nuclear weapons by two-thirds. He did not say whether it would be in the form of a treaty requiring approval by the Senate.
Bush and Putin "have agreed that they would like to have something that would go beyond their two presidencies," Rumsfeld said. Referring to Ivanov's call for a legally binding document on weapons cuts, Rumsfeld said: "Some sort of a document of that type is certainly a likelihood."
Ivanov said he hoped such a document could be signed at the May summit.
Rumsfeld has argued in the past that the U.S.-Russian relationship has evolved so far from the Cold War times of strain and confrontation that there should be no need for a negotiated arms deal. The Putin government has pressed for months for a binding agreement on offensive and defensive arms.
At the news conference Ivanov was asked his government's view of U.S. plans to keep thousands of nuclear warheads in standby or reserve status after removing them from the active force, rather than destroy them.
"We need to dispose of some of the nuclear warheads, no matter if we want it or not," he said. "It is true that for some period of time those warheads could be stored or shelved, but anyway the time will inevitably come when those warheads will have to be destroyed."
Rumsfeld said Ivanov, during the Pentagon meetings, was briefed on a classified review of U.S. nuclear forces, portions of which were made public in newspaper accounts last weekend. Rumsfeld made a special point of lambasting whoever leaked the information to the newspapers.
"It seems that there are some people who simply have a compulsion to seem important, so they take classified information, which can damage U.S. national security, and give it to people who aren't cleared for it," he said.