Asia Crisis

Georgia increases troops, budget for military

TBILISI, July 15 (Reuters) - Georgia's parliament unanimously approved an increase of 5,000 soldiers and a 26.8 percent rise in military spending on Tuesday, days after Russia's air force admitted to flying over Georgian airspace.

Georgia has a long-term plan to strengthen its military, in part to promote its bid for NATO membership. But the latest expansion comes against the backdrop of heightened tension with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On Monday, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's defence and security committee told Reuters Tbilisi had no plans launch any attack.

"As we see, Russia has recently gone from statements to actions ... Therefore we are forced to answer these challenges and be ready for any turn of events, but we do not intend to initiate any military action," said Nika Rurua.

Rurua said the budget increase was initiated by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russia last week said it scrambled four fighter jets over Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, a move Moscow said it was forced to make in order to dissuade Tbilisi from mounting an attack on the separatists.

Georgia said the flights were an act of aggression and called on major powers to condemn Russia.

On Tuesday, hundreds of servicemen from the United States, an ally of Georgia, began taking part in joint military exercises near the capital Tbilisi in war games planned before the latest escalation of tensions.

Officials said the exercise was not linked to the stand-off between Moscow and Tbilisi.

"The main purpose of these exercises is to increase the cooperation and partnership between U.S. and Georgian forces," Brigadier General William B. Garrett, commander of the U.S. military's Southern European Task Force, told reporters.

The increase in Georgian troops will take its armed forces to 37,000. Last year it increased from 20,000 to 32,000.

The extra $209.2 million for defence takes total military expenditure for the year to $989.3 million.

Rurua on Monday said the funds will be spent on weapons acquisitions "in particular anti-aircraft systems... as well as improving the combat-readiness of the army".

South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Tbilisi's control in separatist wars in the 1990s. They run their own affairs with support from Russia, but are not recognised by any state.

Tbilisi accuses Moscow of using its ties to the separatists to annexe Georgian territory. Russia says its role is to protect local people from Georgian aggression.

Earlier this month, four people were killed in a cafe bomb in Abkhazia and two separatists in South Ossetia died in an heavy exchange of fire with Georgian forces. (Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili, editing by Elizabeth Piper)