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US Scales Back 'Cobra Gold' War Games in Thailand

FILE - Amphibious assault vehicles prepare to hit the ground at joint military exercise 'Cobra Gold' on Hat Yao beach in Chonburi province, eastern Thailand, February 10, 2012.

The United States has confirmed it is scaling back a major annual defense exercise in Thailand, where Washington has criticized a coup by the country's military.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok told VOA on Friday the so-called Cobra Gold 2015 exercise set for February will be "refocused and scaled down."

The statement said "in light of the current political situation, the U.S. government has increased its focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

Thai officials have recently denied that the war games would be affected by the May coup, the military's 12th takeover in 80 years, which has caused a minor rift in U.S.-Thai relations.

Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanga-net said this week that 2015 was long ago set as the year for "light military exercises." He said the 2016 version will be designated as "heavy, and prove the exercises have not been affected by the coup."

After General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now prime minister, seized power, the U.S. suspended some foreign assistance and canceled a series of military exercises with Thailand.

Some also have urged the U.S. to either cancel Cobra Gold or move the exercise to another location in order to send a stronger message about the overthrow of the elected government.

Washington has called on Thailand to hold democratic elections as soon as possible, though the junta leader recently hinted a vote may not be held until 2016 or later.

Rights groups accuse the Thai military of widespread human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions and sweeping restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

Despite U.S. concerns about Thailand's political situation, Cobra Gold is expected to continue as one of the region's largest U.S.-led military exercises.

The war games, which have been held every year since 1982, bring together more than 13,000 U.S. and Thai troops and other participants from countries in the region.

The U.S. embassy spokesperson said that as the "premier multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific, Cobra Gold is important to our regional engagement… and to promoting international security cooperation and stability in the region."