Georgia War Games near Defiant Rebel Region

TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia positioned more troops and armor close to Ajaria on Wednesday for a major military exercise certain to fuel further tension with its rebel Black Sea region.

The three-day Dioscuria-2004 maneuvers start on Friday as a standoff continues between new Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze over control of the region that has a lucrative oil port at Batumi.

Abashidze–who has been engaged in verbal dueling with Saakashvili for weeks–denounced the exercise.

"Tbilisi is heating up tensions to the extreme with such unprovoked actions," he told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.

But Saakashvili–on a visit to Poland–said Ajaria was not a target of the exercise at the Kulevi training ground 30 km (20 miles) from its border.

"No kind of military action can be taken anywhere in Georgia–especially in Ajaria," Saakashvili told reporters in Warsaw. "In Ajaria everything will be sorted out peacefully."

Ajaria–is one of three regions that slipped out of Tbilisi’s control after Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in late 1991.

But unlike separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia–which fought bloody wars with Tbilisi–Ajaria has never claimed formal independence from Georgia. Nearly 2,000 servicemen from ex-Soviet Georgia’s armed forces and a quarter of its 120 pieces of armor–tanks and armored vehicles–will take part in the exercise. Military aircraft were expected to arrive on Wednesday.

Georgia’s Defense Ministry said the exercise will provide training on protecting oil pipelines from "terrorists" and on carrying out raids on illegal drug-producing laboratories.

Georgia’s Black Sea coast has no major pipelines–but an international pipeline is under construction to take Caspian oil to the Mediterranean through the eastern part of the country.

Tbilisi and the region came close to military confrontation last month after Saakashvili was initially blocked from entering the province. He subsequently traveled to the Ajarian regional capital of Batumi where he held inconclusive crisis talks with Abashidze.

Abashidze turned the region into a relatively prosperous personal fiefdom amid turmoil across Georgia in the 1990s.

Ajaria–which apart from the oil port hosts a key customs point on Georgia’s border with Turkey–does not contribute to the national budget and has its own military force.

Saakashvili–who became president after leading a bloodless coup against former President and ex-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze last November–has promised to restore Tbilisi’s control over the whole country and has accused Abashidze of turning Ajaria into a haven for criminals.


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