Turks Georgians Azeris Unite to Protect Oil Line

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey–Georgia and Azerbaijan signed a security pact on Tuesday designed to protect a $2.9 billion oil pipeline being built through the three countries in the turbulent Caucasus from "terrorist" attack.

NATO member Turkey and its close ally the United States have been trying for years to forge alliances that could help stabilize the Caucasus region and counterbalance Russian and Iranian influence.

"Since September 11 the importance of our cooperation has increased further," Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said in televised remarks after the signing ceremony in the northeastern Turkish city of Trabzon.

American military experts arrived in Georgia on Tuesday to help the impoverished former Soviet state fight Islamic extremists as part of the US-led campaign against "terrorism."

Sezer and Georgian and Azeri counterparts Eduard Shevardnadze and Haydar Aliyev stressed their pact on "combating terrorism–organized crime and other major crimes" did not represent a coalition against any other country.

Sezer said it would open the way for a deal on how to protect the major crude oil pipeline that will carry Caspian oil from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku–via Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

The 1,075-mile pipeline–to be built by a consortium led by oil giant BP should open in 2005 and carry Azeri crude to world markets through isolated and often inhospitable terrain that may expose it to attack.

"The foundation has been laid for trilateral cooperation to secure the security of the east-west corridor and in the international struggle against terrorism," Aliyev said.

The pipeline was chosen ahead of Russian and Iranian alternatives after intensive US and Turkish lobbying of oil companies and regional countries.

With the Russian province of Chechnya to the north and many festering territorial disputes in the south of the Caucasus–the pipeline could be a target for a range of groups.

Russia has watched the US presence in its traditional backyard with some caution and Shevardnadze refused to comment on Russian media alarm at the arrival of US forces.

"We took a decision on the basis of national interests. I cannot comment on the excitement in the Russian press," he said–speaking through a translator.

The US is a major arms supplier to Turkey–which has waged a decades-long battle against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces in its impoverished and mainly Kurdish southeast.

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