US sailors train Georgians in show of support
By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI (AP) – 1 day ago
ABOARD THE USS STOUT (AP) — U.S. Navy sailors and Georgian coast guard crews held training drills aboard an American warship visiting the former Soviet republic Wednesday in a show of support as tensions with neighboring Russia persist following last year's war.
Sailors clutching mock submachine guns swarmed up ladders on the guided missile destroyer USS Stout and pretended to fire at each other in an exercise simulating the boarding of a hostile ship.
They also held firefighting drills and other exercises as rain drummed the deck of the vessel anchored at the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi. The USS Stout is the sixth American warship to call at Georgia's ports since its losing five-day war against Russia in August.
"The U.S. is our strategic ally, and the Georgian sailors can feel that," Georgian coast guard chief Beso Shengelia told The Associated Press. The training and expertise visiting U.S. crews have provided is "invaluable help," he said.
Russian anger over Georgia's U.S. ties and its drive to join NATO had been building for months when the August war broke out. Georgia shelled the capital city of South Ossetia in an attempt to regain control of the breakaway region and Russian forces responded by driving deep into Georgia.
Moscow then defied the West by basing thousands of troops in South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, and recognizing them as independent nations.
Georgia's fledgling naval forces were decimated by a Russian air raid on its headquarters in the port city of Poti, up the coast near Abkhazia, which destroyed coast guard cutters and killed several people. The USS Stout is due in Poti later this week.
"The training exercises are aimed at improving cooperation between two nations," its captain, Cmdr. Mark J. Oberley, told journalists. "To improve the maritime security is an ultimate goal."
Russian officials sharply criticized the United States for sending warships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia after the conflict, suggesting they might surreptitiously be supplying weapons. Russian sent ships to shadow American vessels across the Black Sea.
The deep differences over Georgia cloud prospects for a major easing of tensions between Washington and Moscow. Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev remained at odds over the issue during a Moscow summit last week aimed at putting ties back on track.
On Tuesday, the day the USS Stout dropped anchor at Batumi, Medvedev visited Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, where he watched military jets take target practice and discussed Russia's combat capabilities with officers in footage shown prominently on state television.
A day earlier, Medvedev visited South Ossetia for the first time since the war. He said a Russian base there was "a signal to those who periodically get idiotic plans in to their heads" — clearly referring to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom the Kremlin accuses of starting the war by launching the attack South Ossetia.
Russia has ignored Western calls to withdraw its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but has been unable to persuade other nation — aside from Nicaragua — to follow its lead.
Underscoring the global dispute over the separatist provinces, Russia forced a 15-year-old U.N. observer mission out of Abkhazia by vetoing a U.N. Security Council proposal to extend its mandate.
The last of 130 observers left Abkhazia's main city, Sukhumi, on Wednesday, a mission official told The Associated Press that. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Associated Press Writer Ruslan Khashig contributed to this report from Sukhumi, Georgia