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U.S. troops set for ex-Soviet republic of Georgia

U.S. military experts say they suspect al Qaeda fighters may have fled to Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region from Afghanistan.
U.S. military experts say they suspect al Qaeda fighters may have fled to Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region from Afghanistan.  

From Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Up to 200 U.S. troops could be headed to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to help train and equip its military against terrorism threats, U.S. military officials said.

But a top Russian official said on Wednesday that such a move would aggravate the already difficult situation in the Caucasus region.

The arrival of U.S. troops in Georgia would mark a further expansion of the war against terrorism by the United States, which has been fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and is providing training to the Philippine government in its battle against Muslim rebels.

No final decision has been made to enact the plan, but the effort could occur in a matter of weeks, U.S. military officials said. The troops could include Special Forces. Ten UH-1H Huey helicopters are being provided, military officials say, and they are largely used for transporting troops and gear.

Will America's war on terrorism come to Georgia? CNN's Jill Dougherty reports (February 27)

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Georgia: Caucasus flashpoint 
Map of Georgia and its neighbors 

The U.S. European Command said it has had one military trainer and six contractors on the ground in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi since November, training air crews in the use of U.S. combat helicopters.

Reacting to the news, Russia's foreign ministry has said that the move could exacerbate conditions in the former Soviet republic.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told ORT television: "We think it [a U.S. presence] could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is difficult as it is."

The European Command also said a 40-man assessment team was in Georgia from late October through early November to meet Georgian military units identified as key units in their fight against terrorism.

The Pentagon has said U.S. troops sent to Georgia would not be engaged in direct fighting.

The U.S. military plan for Georgia had its beginnings last year in a visit to Washington by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze asked for assistance in battling Chechen guerrillas who have crossed the border into his country from the Russian region of Chechnya and in fighting what he says may be a growing number of al Qaeda-related fighters in Georgia.

European Command sources said that there was no U.S. presence in the sensitive Pankisi Gorge region, where Chechen guerillas are located who have come over the Russian-Georgian border. U.S. military specialists also said they believe members of the al Qaeda terrorist network may have fled to the region from Afghanistan.

Russia and the United States have said they want Georgia to tackle the forces in the Pankisi Gorge, but Moscow is uncomfortable at the prospect of American troops in a country that until a decade ago was part of the Soviet Union.

A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday that U.S. assistance in Georgia would be similar to the aid given in the Philippines.

More than 600 U.S. troops are providing training and logistical support to Philippine government forces battling Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim rebel group supported by al Qaeda in the past.

Georgia, which is in the Caucasus Mountains, is bordered by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.

Georgians previously have participated in joint military training as a part of NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program that promotes military cooperation and political contacts within the alliance.


• Georgia: Caucasus flashpoint
February 28, 2002

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