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Georgia Conducts Military Exercises Near Ajaria - 2004-04-30

Georgia has begun three days of large-scale military exercises near the Black Sea port city of Poti, just 30 kilometers from the tense autonomous province of Ajaria. Georgian officials say the exercises are peaceful in nature, but Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze says they will only increase tensions in the region.

The chief of the Georgian Army general staff, Givi Iukuridze, says Friday's war games involving nearly 2,000 air, ground and naval forces will include a search and rescue operation, as well as a full-scale evacuation of people from a simulated crisis area.

The annual drills also include anti-terrorism exercises aimed at defending major installations and oil pipelines, like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that is soon to be operational.

Mr. Iukuridze says the exercises were long planned and are in no way aimed against Ajaria, as Mr. Abashidze claims.

Mr. Iukuridze says the essential aim of the exercise is to better coordinate all of Georgia's military forces. "We are not invaders," he adds.

But that is exactly how the leader of Ajaria's province has said he views the drills. And he has warned Georgia's leaders not to use the exercises to launch what he called "aggressive actions" against Ajaria.

Mr. Abashidze has again placed Ajaria under a state of emergency. It is the third time he has done so since October, when President Mikhail Saakashvili led Georgia's so-called "Rose Revolution," which ousted veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze and ushered him into power.

Mr. Abashidze says President Saakashvili is planning a "Georgia-style" revolution in Ajaria, a claim Tbilisi denies.

But President Saakashvili did raise some questions earlier this week on a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, when he said that Georgia's forces would "take care of Mr. Abashidze," if he did not back down in his resistance to central rule.

The comments were in stark contrast to President Saakashvili's long-standing claims that he will not use force to try to bring Ajaria back into the Georgian fold.

Earlier this week, Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Georgian military drills, appealing for peaceful dialogue rather than military confrontation. Russia still has two remaining Soviet-era military bases in Georgia, one of which is in Ajaria.