NATO begins Georgia military exercises after mutiny
Georgia has lauded the exercises as a gesture of solidarity nine months after its brief war with Russia last summer but Moscow has reacted angrily, with President Dmitry Medvedev calling them ‘an overt provocation.’Tbilisi -- NATO on Wednesday began controversial military exercises in Georgia a day after the ex-Soviet republic said it had put down a military rebellion that had Russia's backing.
The month-long exercises involve at least 1,100 soldiers from more than a dozen NATO and non-NATO states in command and field exercises.
Georgia has lauded the exercises as a gesture of solidarity nine months after its brief war with Russia last summer, but Moscow has reacted angrily, with President Dmitry Medvedev calling them "an overt provocation."
In a sign of increasing NATO-Russia tension, Russia on Wednesday expelled two Canadian diplomats working at NATO's representative office in Moscow after the alliance expelled two Russian envoys in a spy row, the Russian authorities and Canada's embassy said.
A Georgian defence ministry spokesman responsible for the NATO exercises, Colonel Giorgi Kakiashvili, said they were going ahead as planned.
"Everything is going ahead according to the schedule. Most of the participants have already arrived," he told AFP.
He said participants would gather today for planning meetings and that full-scale command exercises would begin on Monday.
The exercises, involving both NATO countries and members of the alliance's Partnership for Peace programme for former Eastern bloc countries, have two components.
"Cooperative Longbow," running from Wednesday to May 19, is a "command post" exercise focusing on training and compatibility with NATO procedures in a crisis-response operation.
"Cooperative Lancer," from May 21 to June 3, is a larger field exercise providing training for peacekeeping operations.
On Tuesday Georgia said it had peacefully put down a mutiny at a military base outside Tbilisi aimed at disrupting the exercises.
Georgia initially accused Russia of backing an armed coup -- a claim Moscow described as "insane" -- but later backed away from claims of Russian involvement.
The brief uprising in a tank battalion at the Mukhrovani base ended without violence after President Mikheil Saakashvili intervened.
At least 20 people have been arrested, including the battalion's commander, and police were hunting for two former military officers and a current officer alleged to have been involved.
"The investigation is continuing. Those arrested as well as the soldiers of the Mukhrovani battalion are being questioned," interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP Wednesday.
Georgia's opposition accused Saakashvili of staging the rebellion to distract attention from nearly a month of protests calling for his resignation.
The mutiny led neighbouring Armenia to pull out of the NATO exercises, but Washington played down its importance, calling the mutiny an "isolated incident."
Georgia and Russia fought the five-day war last year over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia. After the war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
Both rebel regions said Wednesday they had stepped up security in response to the NATO exercises, with Abkhazia saying it had put its forces on "permanent combat alert."
"We do not know the ultimate aims of this exercise," General Anatoly Zaitsev, the chief of the Abkhaz general staff, was quoted as saying by Russia's Interfax news agency.
"The situation compels us to step up security... and to be on permanent combat alert," he said.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity also told Interfax that rebel forces "have stepped up security to prevent Georgian provocations."