Georgian and Ukrainian troops neutralized simulated suicide bombers and a mock mob on a wind-swept hilltop military base near the Georgian capital Sunday as part of monthlong military exercises that have angered Russia.
NATO is training soldiers from the two Westward-leaning former Soviet states, along with two other aspiring NATO members, at the Vaziani military base not far from the separatist South Ossetia province, where war between Russia and Georgia erupted nine months ago.
Russia opposes NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and tension over Georgia's NATO aspirations was a catalyst for the war last summer. Following the conflict, Russia recognized South Ossetia's claim of independence and stationed thousands of troops there, adding to strains in Russia's relations with the West.
At least 300 soldiers take part
At least 300 soldiers have been taking part in the military exercises. During Sunday's drills, troops from NATO nations as well as Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia and Bosnia — members of the alliance's Partnership for Peace program — played out various scenarios, including an angry mob descending on a checkpoint.
A NATO press officer, Spanish Lt. Col. Luis Aparicio, said the exercises would help prepare the participants for NATO membership, but added that "it's not only for this purpose."
Aparicio stressed that the skills being taught — such as how to neutralize suicide bombers, capture important suspects alive and erect effective checkpoints — were also crucial for successful cooperation during NATO-led missions with partner countries.
"It's for interoperability," he said. "We are showing partner countries how NATO reacts in crisis-response. Otherwise it would be impossible to work together."
During the simulated attack on a checkpoint, one person in the mob darted out as an officer detonated an explosive, simulating a suicide bomb. A Canadian officer then tried to light an incendiary device but was injured as it malfunctioned, turning a subsequent mock helicopter evacuation into a real one.
Aparicio said the officer's life was not in danger.
Russia crticizes NATO
Russia has criticized NATO for the exercises. Russian officials contend they will encourage belligerence from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom they accuse of starting the war last summer. NATO says the exercises pose no threat to Russia, and that Russia has no say in the decisions Georgia makes.
The war with Russia set back Georgia's NATO aspirations by strengthening Russian control over South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgia region, Abkhazia. It also underscoring Russia's opposition to Georgia's bid for NATO membership, which makes European members wary.
NATO has stressed that Russia has no veto on membership for Georgia or Ukraine, but the alliance has not granted either country a timetable. Public support is far higher in Georgia than in Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population.
Russia also accuses NATO of interfering in Georgia's internal politics, claiming it has supported Saakashvili's administration by holding the exercises while persistent street protests organized by opposition forces are demanding the president's resignation.
NATO says the maneuvers were scheduled long ago and have nothing to do with the protests, which began April 9.
The field exercises ended Sunday, Aparicio said. The official end date for the training is June 3.