VAZIANI, Georgia - Georgian and Ukrainian troops neutralized simulated suicide bombers and a mock mob on a wind-swept hilltop military base near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi yesterday as part of monthlong military exercises that have angered Russia.
NATO is training soldiers from the two West-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 have been taking part in the military exercises. During yesterday'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 one in which an angry mob descended 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 has criticized NATO for the exercises. Russian officials contend they will encourage belligerence from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom they accuse of starting the war last summer. NATO says that 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.