By Armen Zakarian
Armenia began its first-ever participation in NATO-led military exercises Monday when a small detachment of its armed forces joined troops from 14 others nations, including Turkey and Azerbaijan, at a military base near Tbilisi. The participating units will try to improve their combat interaction.
The 12-day exercises codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2002 are held under the aegis of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a cooperation framework for the mainly Eastern European states seeking membership in or closer ties with the Alliance.
A Georgian army spokesman told the Associated Press that approximately 600 servicemen were to practice patrolling, organizing checkpoints, and anti-sniper techniques. He said they will also work on boosting their ability to work together. The exercises are being held at a former Russian military base in Vaziani, about 20 kilometers east of the capital Tbilisi.
Officials in Yerevan said the Armenian military is represented by a dozen soldiers and as many officers. They are part of a special peace-keeping battalion formed last year with the help of NATO member Greece.
The deputy defense minister, General Artur Aghabekian, told RFE/RL that they are taking part in the war games within a platoon comprising Canadian and Dutch servicemen. He said he will arrive in Vaziani on June 28 to attend a "concluding conference" there.
Aghabekian also said that participation in the exercises testifies to Armenia's "commitment to the Partnership for Peace" program. He reaffirmed Yerevan's plans to host similar NATO-led maneuvers on its soil next summer.
President Robert Kocharian and other top officials likewise told the visiting president of NATO's parliamentary assembly, Rafael Estrella, last month that they want closer ties with the Western alliance. The move underlined Armenia's recent efforts to "complement" its military alliance with Russia with other security arrangements.
Troops taking part in the Vaziani exercises are coming from six NATO member states, including the United States, Britain, Greece and Turkey, and nine other countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.