NATO reassures Georgia on membership after Afghan deaths
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday the alliance remained committed to granting membership to Georgia, as the ex-Soviet republic mourned its worst losses to date in Afghanistan.
Four Georgian soldiers were killed in combat operations in Afghanistan Thursday, the defence ministry said, in the biggest loss of life since Georgian troops deployed in the war-torn country earlier this year.
On an official visit to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Rasmussen reaffirmed NATO's pledge that Georgia would one day become an alliance member and praised the country for its contribution in Afghanistan.
"We appreciate the significant Georgian commitment to our operations in Afghanistan. We are very grateful for that," he said at a joint press conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"I can assure you that NATO also stands firm in our commitment for Georgia. Our position remains the same -- that Georgia will become a NATO member provided that Georgia fulfils the necessary criteria."
NATO leaders agreed at a 2008 summit in Bucharest that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of the alliance, but -- under pressure from European leaders wary of alienating Russia -- denied the two countries coveted pre-membership status.
Saakashvili said Georgia also remained committed to joining the alliance.
"We will not give up on this dream," he said.
Offering condolences to the families of the dead soldiers, Saakashvili said the country's troops were defending Georgia's interests by serving in Afghanistan.
"It would be a great mistake to limit Georgia's interests only by the borders of Georgia when a global political struggle is underway against us. We have international interests; we have our allies and friends," he said.
The defence ministry said in a statement that the four soldiers were killed by an explosive device and that the dead included a colonel, a sergeant and two corporals.
It was unclear whether the Georgians were among six international soldiers that NATO announced Thursday had been killed in Taliban attacks.
Defence ministry spokesman Levan Papaskiri told AFP the soldiers had been killed on Thursday but refused to provide any other details.
Georgia suffered its first loss in Afghanistan last month when a soldier was killed in a bomb attack.
Georgia is a staunch ally of the United States and hopes to join NATO. It has made a priority of sending troops to US and NATO-led military operations and had 2,000 troops in Iraq, the third-largest force in support of US operations there, before pulling them out in 2008.
About 1,000 Georgian soldiers have been deployed in Afghanistan since April, mainly in Helmand province alongside US marines.
Georgian officials have said the country of 4.4 million's troop commitment -- a heavy battalion and two light companies -- makes it the largest per capita contributor to the war effort.
The country's NATO aspirations have infuriated giant neighbour Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia in August 2008 over the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.
Rasmussen also urged Russia to abide by a ceasefire agreement that ended the war. Tbilisi has accused Moscow of violating the ceasefire by keeping troops in South Ossetia and Georgia's other rebel region Abkhazia, which Russia has recognised as independent states.
"We insist on full respect for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity... and we call on Russia to fulfil its commitments according to the ceasefire agreement," Rasmussen said.
He added, however, that it was his intention "to improve the relationship between Russia and NATO, leading hopefully to a true strategic partnership."
NATO and the United States have more than 152,000 soldiers in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban insurgency, which has intensified to its most virulent since the Islamists' regime was overthrown in 2001.
© 2010 AFP