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U.S. Warship Conducts Joint Training With Georgia

The "USS John L. Hall" anchored at the Black Sea port of Batumi on March 1.
BATUMI, Georgia (Reuters) -- U.S. naval forces started exercises with Georgia's coast guard today along the Black Sea coast, in a sign of Washington's support for the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The start of the two-day exercises came as Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had finished setting up a coast guard division in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Black Sea tensions have eased since a row last year over the seizure by the Georgian coastguard of ships trying to trade with Abkhazia, recognized by Russia as an independent state after a brief war with Georgia in 2008.

Moscow's military crushed an assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the breakaway pro-Russian territory of South Ossetia in a five-day war in August 2008.

In the weeks after the 2008 war, several U.S. navy ships, including the guided-missile destroyer "McFaul," docked off Georgia's Black Sea coast, angering Moscow which accused Washington of sending weapons.

"We'll be doing damage control training today...fighting a fire on board a ship, a hazard materials spill," Commander Derek Lavan told Reuters on board the guided-missile frigate "USS John L. Hall."

"We'll show the Georgian team how the warship is made and what kind of equipment we use," he said, as a group of Georgian coast guards sprinted around the deck wearing gas masks. The training will include law enforcement and ship-boarding drills.

Russia remains sensitive to military cooperation between the West and Georgia, which wants to join NATO.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and the European Union have sought to mend ties with Russia, and -- to the anger of Georgia -- France plans to sell the Russian Navy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier.

Asked about the U.S.-Georgian training exercises, the head of the Russian FSB coast guard department, Viktor Trufanov, said: "It doesn't make us nervous," Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported him as saying.

Trufanov said the coast guard division in Abkhazia had been completed. "The situation on the Abkhaz borders are under control," he was quoted as saying. "The forces which are there right now are enough to meet all tasks."

Abkhazia signed a deal last month to allow Russia to build a military base for at least 3,000 troops on its soil. A naval base is also planned in the port of Ochamchire.