TBILISI, Georgia, July 17 (UPI) -- The Republic of Georgia has become home to illegal immigrants from several Arab countries and Afghanistan who enter the country on fake passports and use it as a stepping stone to move farther into Europe, a top official in the Georgian government said Wednesday.
Once in Georgia, the immigrants reportedly buy false Georgian passports, sold on the black market for up to $10,000 each, and leave the country heading west, State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzaniya said in remarks broadcast by Georgia's state-run television network.
The minister added his agents recently detained a group of Afghan nationals who arrived from Armenia on fake Iranian passports, intending to settle temporarily in Georgia before obtaining forged passports and continuing their Europe-bound journey.
Khaburdzaniya failed to specify the number of the people detained, but said the group included a family with children, all traveling with false papers. Other details surrounding the case were undisclosed to protect investigation.
Such details may involve potential links the seized travelers may have with Afghan-based militant groups whose members the Bush administration suspects of settling in the Gorge of Pankiss in Georgia.
Georgia President Eduard Shevradnadze and other government officials have vehemently denied the charges, insisting there are no members of al Qaida -- the group believed to be behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States -- in the gorge.
U.S. military experts have tipped Georgia as one of potential locations that could be used as a safe haven by the Taliban militants fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition removed them from power last year.
Washington and Tbilisi have worked closely to set up an anti-terrorist training program for the Georgian military and also have boosted exchange of intelligence information that could prove valuable in tracking down Afghan militants attempting to enter Georgia.
According to the State Security Ministry, several groups are operating in Georgia forging passports and visas. The prices range from $5,000 to $10,000 per passport depending on the traveler's destination.
Khaburdzaniya noted Wednesday there were more than Georgian citizens involved in making fake passports and visas.
"Foreign nationals, including staffers of some foreign diplomatic missions, accredited in Tbilisi, have also been involved in it," he said.
Georgia's faltering economy has been on the verge of collapse since the tiny Caucasus nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Moreover, separatist bids in Georgia's autonomous provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia plunged the country into violence and civil war, eventually ruining the economy.
The quality of life dropped as inflation and unemployment skyrocketed, making the black market the only source of income for many Georgians.