By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
Senior US army officers, whose statements in Georgia on Wednesday sparked a furious reaction from Russia, traveled on to Armenia on Thursday to discuss details of the unfolding military cooperation between Washington and Yerevan.
The five officers led by Elmer Guy White, Eurasia branch chief of US Unified Command in Europe, arrived in the Armenian capital on the last leg of a regional tour aimed at exploring possibilities of furthering military ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They were later joined by a separate delegation sent by the Pentagon, according to the US embassy in Yerevan.
Photo: Elmer Guy White (R) in Tbilisi on Wednesday at the head of a US military delegation.
The embassy spokesman, John Balian, told RFE/RL that the visiting officers' talks with senior Armenian defense ministry officials are aimed at identifying specific areas of bilateral military cooperation. He said they will discuss the use of the $4.3 million military assistance to Armenia, approved by the US Congress in November, and the upcoming opening of a US-funded mine clearing center near Yerevan.
The aid allocation followed a suspension of American economic sanctions against Armenia's arch-rival Azerbaijan sought by the administration of President George W. Bush. Touring the south Caucasus last December, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Washington is anxious to reward all three states for their support in the US war on terrorism. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia granted the Pentagon use of their airspace shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
It was not clear which Armenian military officials received the US delegations. As of late afternoon the defense ministry had no comment on the visit. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was absent from the country on Thursday.
While in Tbilisi, the US officers confirmed reports that Washington will train Georgia's rag-tag armed forces as part of its global war against terrorism. "The train-and-equip program that we discussed today...is designed to allow the Georgian military to better secure its territorial integrity and provide its own security," White told reporters there.
Reuters quoted Pentagon officials as saying that they plan to send up to 200 Army Special Forces troops to train Georgian forces and help them expel guerrillas with ties to the al-Qaeda terror network. The announcement drew strongly-worded protests from Russia which warned that any American troops in neighboring Georgia would only increase tensions in the region.
But Bush on Wednesday defended the plans, saying that Islamic guerrillas reportedly entrenched in Georgia's lawless Pankisi gorge are influenced by fugitive Osama bin Laden, America's most wanted man. US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov by telephone on Wednesday to try to allay Moscow's concerns, a senior State Department official told Reuters.
The latest tensions between the two former Cold War foes could further cloud prospects for lasting peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Armenia could find it harder to stick to its policy of "complementing" a military alliance with Russia with close ties with the West.
Official Yerevan on Thursday reacted cautiously to the latest developments. "We don't have full information [on developments in Georgia] to formulate a clear-cut position at this point," foreign ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Aghajanian told RFE/RL. "We can only express the hope that such [US military] presence and related developments will not cause additional problems and tensions in our region."
Some senior lawmakers appeared to share Russian concerns over US military involvement in the region. The deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Tigran Torosian, said the Americans "need to look at things in a more sober and cool way."
The chairman of the parliament committee on defense and security, Vahan Hovannisian, complained about Georgia's "unpredictability on domestic and international issues." But he said Yerevan has no reason to be worried about possible arrival of US troops in Georgia.