(TBILISI, Georgia) - Only the United States can help uproot militants in this former Soviet republic, the Georgian president said Friday, while Russian leader Vladimir Putin insisted he is not worried by plans to deploy U.S. troops here.
The two presidents spoke at a regional summit amid complaints by some Russian officials over the U.S. plan to send up to 200 troops to Georgia to train security forces, which has brought speculation that it could become the next front in the anti-terror war.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze defended his decision to work with Washington rather than Moscow, which traditionally sees the region as its sphere of influence.
``It has been no secret that the United States helped us form a border guard force. Without their help we would not have done it,'' Shevardnadze said in a speech to the leaders of 11 former Soviet republics, gathered in Kazakstan.
``Now they seriously intend to create an anti-terrorist group. No other country was capable of doing that,'' he said.
Putin said the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia was ``no tragedy'' for Russia.
``If this is possible in Central Asia, why not in Georgia?'' Putin said, according to Interfax news agency.
Putin has followed a policy of cooperation with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign and has raised no objection to the U.S. military's operations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
But many Russian officials warned that U.S. troops in Georgia would be going too far. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested in a conversation with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday that the U.S. troops would only aggravate an already delicate situation.
The U.S. troops are to train and equip security forces to fight militants operating in the Pankisi Gorge region. U.S. officials say the militants may be linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network
The region borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, and Moscow says the rebels it is fighting there use the Pankisi area as a refuge. Georgia, eager to shed Russian influence and reach out to the West, refused Russian offers to help crack down on the Pankisi.
Shevardnadze dismissed the ``uproar'' in Russia, adding: ``We will cooperate with Russia and other countries.''
Shevardnadze also admitted in a statement released late Thursday that his country could crumble. Two Georgian regions bordering on Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have already declared independence, although no country recognizes their bid.
The United States recognizes that without a strong military, a country's ``sovereignty could become a fiction. Therefore they made a decision to activate cooperation in the military sphere,'' Shevardnadze said.
U.S. and Georgian officials say American forces would not be involved in combating rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. The U.S. troops will train four battalions, each comprising about 300 servicemen, said a western official in Moscow.
A group of U.S. military instructors will arrive in Georgia in mid-March as part of an ongoing military cooperation agreement, Defense Ministry spokesman Miryan Kiknadze said Friday.
The U.S. forces will train infantry and border guard units over a period of up to 12 months and provide light weapons, vehicles and communications equipment, said the western official in Moscow, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials hope to start training headquarters units, which are responsible for planning, overseeing and executing military operations, by mid-March, the official said.