NATO chiefs to underline Georgia support with visit

NATO chiefs will visit Georgia next week in a demonstration of support after Russia's incursion last month smashed the tiny ex-Soviet country's military.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and envoys of the 26 NATO allies will launch the NATO-Georgia Commission, a body conceived after the intervention as a means to bolster ties with Tbilisi, which has been promised eventual NATO membership.

The diplomats will also visit areas affected by last month's fighting during their two-day visit beginning on Monday, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

"This was decided by NATO foreign ministers in August as one of the main responses to the crisis," he told a briefing of the NATO-Georgia Commission.

Senior NATO diplomats have raised concerns the envoys could be stepping into a diplomatic minefield, given the continued presence of Russian troops in the country despite a French-brokered peace deal to end the five-day conflict.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Moscow's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin as saying he had warned his alliance colleagues that Georgia might stage provocations during the visit.

"We do not rule out that the Georgian side will itself try to 'mine' additional evidence of Russia's aggressiveness, that is why one should await possible provocations," he said.

Rogozin said on Wednesday the visit was "politically and morally out of place" as it would be taken by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a show of military and political support.

Russia has been incensed by the pledge of eventual NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet state, and many see this as the spur for its intervention in Georgia.

Defence Planning

One victim of the incursion was the Senaki military base which was built to NATO standards after Saakashvili's 2003 "Rose Revolution". Georgian officials said it suffered huge damage.

NATO has pledged to assist Georgia in its defence planning and Appathurai said an alliance team had already been assessing the country's defence requirements.

However NATO as an organization would not be providing weapons for the Georgian armed forces, as this was a matter for NATO states, Appathurai said.

"NATO doesn't have weapons...If that is to happen, it will happen on a bilateral basis, not from the alliance."

During the visit NATO envoys will visit the site of an aviation data exchange system covering the border region between Georgia and NATO member Turkey that was connected on August 28.

The spokesman said the system was intended to improve air safety and was not a response to the current crisis. He said four non-NATO countries, including Austria, had the same system.

Ahead of the visit to Georgia, de Hoop Scheffer will visit Latvia for a multinational NATO exercise and will discuss the crisis with the foreign ministers of the Baltic NATO members.

NATO said earlier this month its members backed a U.S. call to show through planning and exercises that the alliance was prepared to meet treaty obligations to defend the Baltic states from any attack after Russia's intervention in Georgia.

Appathurai said the discussions with the ministers would concern whether defence planning should be on a routine or an ad hoc basis -- not emergency planning against Russia. "No one is talking about an imminent attack on the Baltic states," he said.

[Source: Georgian Daily, Brussels, 11Sep08]

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