NATO military exercises near end in Georgia

TBILISI, May 31, 2009 (AFP) - Controversial NATO military exercises in former Soviet republic Georgia were nearing their end Sunday after provoking a furious reaction from neighbouring Russia.

The month-long drills involving about 1,100 troops from 10 NATO countries and six of the alliance's partner countries were to end on Monday.

Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia in August over the rebel South Ossetia region, denounced the exercises as "provocative" and announced plans to step up its own military training exercises near the Georgian border next month.

Analysts say that although they were planned before last year's war, the exercises have boosted Georgia's hopes of building closer ties with the Western military alliance.

"They prove that the West, and NATO in particular, has not lost interest in Georgia after the August war," political analyst Soso Tsintsadze told AFP.

"The holding of these exercises in Georgia despite the strongest objections from Moscow is a cold shower for the Kremlin," he said.

The manoeuvres were aimed at improving the way nations operate together in crisis situations under a UN mandate.

The exercises had two components, NATO headquarters said.

The first -- "Cooperative Longbow" -- was a "command post" exercise done almost exclusively on computers. The second -- "Cooperative Lancer" -- which started on May 18 and ends Monday, is a field exercise involving around 400 troops and is designed to provide training on peacekeeping operations.

Russian leaders denounced the drills, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling them "a step backwards" in resetting Russia-US relations.

Russian officials also said the NATO exercises would lead to "adjustments" in strategic and tactical manoeuvres entitled "Caucasus 2009" that are scheduled to take place in the region in June.

The exercises were held amid political uncertainty in Georgia as opposition supporters have protested for weeks to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.

Opponents accuse Saakashvili of mishandling the war with Russia and of becoming increasingly autocratic since taking power after the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003.

Minor clashes have broken out between police and protesters, raising fears of wider unrest.

The day before the exercises began, Georgia also said it had peacefully put down a mutiny at a military base outside Tbilisi aimed at disrupting the drills. Georgia initially accused Russia of backing an armed coup -- an accusation Moscow described as "insane."

Source: AFP

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