Georgia hosts NATO-led exercises

Georgia hopes that hosting the maneuvers for NATO will improve its chances of joining the Western military alliance. So the air forces of 12 nations kicked off Wednesday in Georgia.

Several hundred air force personnel from NATO members, including the United States and Germany, and aspiring members, including Georgia and Ukraine, will take part in the 20-day training as part of NATO's Partnership for Peace - a program of cooperation between the alliance and former Soviet militaries.

"We are here to learn from each other," said Col. Kazimierz Dynski, a NATO representative who is directing the exercises, dubbed Cooperative Archer 2007.

Participants will learn to help victims of earthquakes and floods, evacuate people by helicopter and set up a field hospital, said Zaza Gogava, chief of general staff of the Georgian armed forces.

The participants also include Albania, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Hungary, Jordan, Latvia, Moldova and Turkey.

Since he came to power, President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to get the small Caucasus nation both NATO and EU membership - plans that have irritated Russia, which has regarded Georgia as being within its sphere of influence.

Further complicating Georgia's efforts to join NATO is its struggle to bring two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, back under central government control. Russia has close ties with the separatist provinces, but does not formally recognize them.