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Caspian: U.S. Says Patrol Boats Are Gifts To Promote Regional Security

The U.S. government has again denied that boats given to Azerbaijan for patrolling the Caspian Sea have a military purpose. Despite reports from neighboring countries, an official stressed that the unarmed vessels do not affect the region's balance of power. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States said last week that a gift of patrol boats to Azerbaijan was aimed only at promoting regional security, despite criticism from other Caspian states.

In a phone interview with RFE/RL, a U.S. government official in Washington stressed that the first of two boats delivered to Azerbaijan on 16 June would pose no threat to its neighbors.

Reading from a prepared statement, the official, who asked not to be named, said, "The patrol boats are non-lethal, and they have no infrastructure such as mounting devices to support lethal military equipment."

This assurance was similar to one last month by the American ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, who said that it would be "almost impossible" to install weapons on the vessels, which are used as coast guard cutters in the United States.

The official in Washington said the 15-meter boats were donated under an export control and border security program. The initiative is aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms, and militarily goods, the official said.

Despite the assurances, reactions in the region have been strong and in some cases, inaccurate.

A report that Turkmenistan would respond by buying 20 patrol boats from Ukraine raised alarms in Azerbaijan, until President Leonid Kuchma reportedly corrected the account to say that the number was only two.

But Turkmenistan raised concerns again this month after an official of the Russian arms trader Rosoboronexport announced that Ashgabat would exchange gas for arms, including patrol craft.

Commentaries by the "Tehran Times" and the Tehran Voice of Iran radio have criticized the United States for interference and alleged attempts to create a crisis in the Caspian.

One of the more exaggerated reports last week came from Russia's Independent Information Center Glasnost, which published a story with the headline, "U.S.-made cannon-boats are to patrol the Caspian Sea."

In addition to the U.S. denials, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev noted last week that Turkmenistan had also received patrol boats from the United States.

When asked about the statement, the U.S. official confirmed that Turkmenistan was given a boat under a military surplus program one year ago. The United States has donated equipment under export control programs with over 20 countries and is seeking to establish similar cooperation with Turkmenistan, the official said.

The U.S. government also argues that there is no link between its initiative and the issue of militarization in the Caspian.

The official said, "We have carefully designed our non-proliferation assistance programs to ensure that they do not affect the military balance in the Caspian or in the Caucasus."

The reports over the past month suggest that Azerbaijan's neighbors see political value in the issue at a time when the question of Caspian borders remains unresolved.

The question may be particularly contentious in light of Turkmenistan's dispute with Azerbaijan over the ownership of oil fields in the middle of the Caspian, and Iran's concern that a division formula could allow the passage of Russian warships too close to its shores.

But Azerbaijan is not the only country that has had to deal with suspicions about its Caspian activities.

Last August, Iran denied that it had embarked on a buildup after the Azerbaijani press reported that Tehran planned to increase its Caspian force by adding 6,000 troops, 75 armored vehicles, eight fighter planes, 34 patrol craft, a frigate, and a submarine. In the past year, there have been no reports to suggest that any such buildup has taken place.

But in a region where distrust may be the most prevalent force, the Caspian countries are responding to threats, whether real or imagined.