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US military will stay in Georgia

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US military will stay in Georgia
By Natalia Antelava
In Tbilisi, Georgia

US officials have said that their military presence in Georgia will now become permanent.

The American military has been training and equipping the Georgian army since the spring of 2002.

Having trained three battalions of Georgian soldiers, US military instructors were due to leave in March.

Georgia's new president-elect has set the removal of Russian troops still based in the country as a major priority for his government.

On Saturday the US ambassador to Georgia said they had decided to continue training the Georgian army in a full-time programme.US 'security guarantee'

During the Soviet era, Krtsanisi military base outside Tbilisi was home to the Red Army.

Now it is US soldiers who are in charge and, according to the US Ambassador in Tbilisi Richard Miles, they are in Georgia to stay.

In 2002 the Bush administration set up an 18-month, $65m programme aimed at training and equipping Georgia's impoverished army.

The programme was part of America's war on terror and it started after the US confirmed Russian allegations about the presence of Chechen and al-Qaeda fighters in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, on the border with Chechnya.

Details are still to be announced of the new permanent programme, but analysts say that any sort of US military presence is good news for the Georgian Government, which sees the US engagement as a security guarantee against Georgia's northern neighbour - Russia.

Russia tensions

For Moscow, the Caucasus is a geopolitical backyard, rich in energy resources and crucial to the conflict in Chechnya.

Moscow's refusal to remove its military bases from Georgia has long fuelled tensions between the two countries.

Georgia's President-elect, Mikhail Saakashvili, says the removal of the Russian troops will be high on his government's priority list.

The US, whose own stakes in the Caucasus include a multi-billion dollar Caspian oil pipeline, backs this demand.

Last week, the Bush administration also called for Russia to remove its military and said it was even prepared to take up some of the costs needed for the relocation of Russian troops.
Sun Jan 18, 2004 3:16 pm
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