VAZIANI, Georgia (Reuters) - One thousand U.S. troops began a military training exercise in Georgia on Tuesday against a backdrop of growing friction between Georgia and neighboring Russia.
Officials said the exercise, called “Immediate Response 2008”, had been planned for months and was not linked to a stand-off between Moscow and Tbilisi over two Russian-backed separatists regions of Georgia.
The United States is an ally of Georgia and has irritated Russia by backing Tbilisi’s bid to join the NATO military alliance.
“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 war games involve 600 Georgian troops and smaller numbers from ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
The two-week exercise was taking place at the Vaziani military base near the capital Tbilisi, which was a Russian air force base until Russian forces withdrew at the start of this decade under a European arms reduction agreement.
Georgia and the Pentagon cooperate closely. Georgia has a 2,000-strong contingent supporting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and Washington provides training and equipment to the Georgian military.
Georgia last week recalled its ambassador in Moscow in protest at Russia sending fighter jets into Georgian airspace. Tbilisi urged the West to condemn Russia’s actions.
Russia said the flights were to prevent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from launching a military operation against the separatist South Ossetia region.
Moscow accuses Saakashvili of preparing to restore Tbilisi’s control over South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia by force. Tbilisi says that is a pretext for Russia to effectively annexe large chunks of Georgian territory.