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Georgian War Games Begin Amid Russian Criticism

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) is surrounded by bodyguards as he visits the Mukhrovani military base after a reported mutiny by soldiers.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- NATO has launched military exercises in Georgia under a storm of criticism from Russia and following a rebellion in the Georgian military.

Russia has condemned the monthlong war games as "muscle-flexing" on its southern border, where it sent tanks and troops in August last year in a five-day war to crush a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia.

Georgia said on May 5 it had put down a mutiny at a tank base east of the capital, Tbilisi, and accused Russia of trying to disrupt the exercises and foment a wider rebellion against President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russia said the accusations were "insane" and accused Saakashvili of trying to shift the blame for weeks of opposition protests demanding he resign over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous military defeat.

The exercises, which will not be in full swing until next week, involve over 1,000 soldiers from more than a dozen NATO member states and partner nations.

They are being held at a former Russian air force base east of Tbilisi and a few kilometers from the Mukhrovani base, where the government said tank commanders had rebelled on May 5 and were arrested several hours later.

NATO insists the exercises in "crisis response" and field training pose no threat to Russia. They are seen as a gesture of solidarity with Georgia, whose NATO membership ambitions have effectively been put on hold since the August war.

"The NATO secretary-general [Jaap de Hoop Scheffer] thinks that nobody should misuse the exercise," spokeswoman Carmen Romero said on May 5.

"This is not a NATO exercise; it is an exercise of NATO with its partners," she said. "This exercise has nothing to do with Georgia. It has nothing to do with Russia. Georgia is just hosting the exercise and nobody should interpret the exercise in a different way and use it for other purposes."

Armenia, Russia's strategic ally in the South Caucasus, on May 5 joined Kazakhstan, Serbia, and Moldova in pulling out.

Russia fiercely opposes membership for Georgia and Ukraine as an encroachment on its ex-Soviet backyard and traditional sphere of influence.