Russia, US hold rival war games in restive Caucasus: officials

TBILISI, Georgia (AFP) — The United States and Russia held rival war games Tuesday on either side of the Caucasus mountains amid simmering tensions over the fate of two rebel regions in ex-Soviet Georgia.

Almost 8,000 Russian servicemen on Tuesday began anti-terror exercises across Russia's North Caucasus region, which borders Georgia, a spokesman for the Russian army told AFP.

In Georgia 1,650 US and Georgian servicemen began rival exercises on the formerly Russian-controlled Vaziani base, the Georgian defence ministry said.

The Russian exercises were planned a year ago and "are in no way related to the US-Georgian activities," Russian army spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

Tensions between Georgia and Russia have soared in recent months as Moscow has increased its support for Georgia's rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia has angered Moscow by moving to join the NATO alliance.

The Russian exercises are in part designed to prepare forces for peacekeeping work in the Russia-backed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Konashenkov said.

"In connection with the aggravated situation of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts... we will also work on participation in special operations to bring peace to zones of armed conflicts," he said.

Around 700 pieces of military hardware will be used during the exercises, he said.

US-Georgia exercises within the framework of the NATO Partnership for Peace began Tuesday, Georgian Defence Ministry spokeswoman Nana Intskirveli told AFP.

Armenian, Azerbaijani and Ukrainian staff officers are also taking part in the exercises which will last for three weeks, she said.