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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 05:58 GMT
US defends Georgia military plans
American soldiers
Reports say up to 200 special forces may be deployed
US President George W Bush has defended plans for the US military to train and equip troops in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Five US military advisers have already arrived in Georgia, in what is being seen as a possible new front in the US war on terror.

As long as there is al-Qaeda influence anywhere we will help the host countries rout 'em out and bring 'em to justice

President Bush
The US involvement has drawn criticism from Moscow which has traditionally regarded Georgia as part of its sphere of influence.

On Wednesday US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to try to allay Moscow's concerns, a senior State Department official said.

Military hardware

Washington has already sent at least six helicopters and unconfirmed US media reports say up to 200 special forces may be deployed.

The helicopters - which arrived last autumn - are not equipped for carrying out air attacks, and will be used only to transport men and equipment, officials say.

George W Bush
Bush emphasised the troops will not be fighting
However, their deployment is the first confirmed arrival of US military hardware in Georgia.

The US is stepping in because of reports that fighters allied with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network may have escaped to Georgia.

Speaking on a visit to Charlotte, North Carolina, Mr Bush said: "As long as there is al-Qaeda influence anywhere we will help the host countries rout 'em out and bring 'em to justice."

Advisory role

The US has been keen to stress that any military aid to Georgia would have to be formally requested and would be limited to training and equipment - no US troops would be directly involved in fighting.

US forces will have the right, however, to act in self-defence, said a Pentagon spokesman.

But Mr Ivanov says that a US presence in Georgia will only increase tensions in the region, a criticism Mr Powell was keen to dispel when he telephoned Mr Ivanov.

"They talked about the Georgian situation. Ivanov talked about the Russian reaction. Powell talked about how they're going to do training, and said it was in Russia's interests," a State Department spokesman told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Lack of control

The focus of US attention is the remote Pankisi Gorge, close to Georgia's border with the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Washington is concerned that the Georgian authorities are unable to control the security situation there.

Chechen guerrillas
Allies of Al-Qaeda are said to be hiding in Georgia

The US and Russia both believe that al-Qaeda suspects may be hiding in the gorge area, where militants who operate in Chechnya are also believed to be based.

Correspondents say the Americans are viewing the Georgian operation as a possible new front against global terrorism.

As well as the operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, US troops are actively involved in efforts by the Philippine Government to contain Muslim guerrillas that Washington believes to have links with al-Qaeda.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"The word from Washington is a small number of troops are being ear-marked for Georgia"
See also:

27 Feb 02 | Europe
US role in Georgia alarms Russia
31 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Georgia
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