1,500 Georgians protest in Tbilisi against withdrawal of Russian bases

About 1,500 residents protested Monday against the possible closure of a Russian military base in their southern Georgian town, a television station reported, signaling local objections to Georgia's demand that the last two Soviet-era bases in the country shut down.

Demonstrators urged the Georgian government not to rush the pullout of the 62nd Russian military base, saying they feared for their livelihood, Georgia's independent Rustavi-2 television reported. Many residents of the town of Akhalkalaki, close to the border with Armenia, work at the base.

They appealed to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to help solve the region's social and economic problems, the report said.

In comments at a military unit later in the day, Saakashvili said that "we guarantee work in the armed forces for all personnel working at the Russian military bases."

He said that those who now serve at the Akhalkalaki base would be transferred to other units in the area when it is closed.

Georgia and Russia have been sparring over the timetable for withdrawal. Tbilisi wants the troops out within two years, if not earlier, while Moscow insists it needs at least four years, if not more than a decade, to complete the job.

The Russian daily Kommersant said last week that Moscow is motivated in part by fears its military presence in Armenia - its closest ally in the strategic Caucasus region - could be at risk if it pulls out of Georgia.

Russia does not border Armenia, and uses Georgian territory to move troops and equipment to its military base there.

Associated Press

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