Kazakhstan snubs NATO games in support for Russia

ASTANA Tue Apr 21, 2009 7:29am EDT

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ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan refused Tuesday to take part in NATO-organized war games in Georgia in a show of support for Russia, which has bitterly criticized the plan.

Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia last year and strongly opposes its ambition to become a member of NATO, has protested against the alliance's plans to hold a series of exercises near the Georgian capital Tbilisi in May.

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, on Tuesday backed Russia's position by pulling out. "No, we will not take part," Defense Minister Danial Akhmetov told reporters. "We are too busy. Yes, it's our final decision."

NATO has said it does not understand why Moscow is upset by the long-planned exercises involving 1,300 troops from 19 countries from May 6 to June 1.

This week Russia threatened to call off a meeting of senior military commanders with NATO next month if the alliance went ahead with the exercises, Interfax news agency reported.

While keeping close contacts with Russia, Kazakhstan has promoted its role as Washington's key ally in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan allowed overflights of its territory during the U.S.-led war in nearby Afghanistan and has sought to forge closer ties with NATO by holding joint military exercises and suggesting it could buy military hardware from NATO countries.

The mainly Muslim nation tentatively backed Russia's actions in Georgia during the August war but refused to follow Moscow in recognizing the independence of Georgia's rebel regions.

(Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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