Saakashvili Hopeful on NATO Visit

APDe Hoop Scheffer giving a thumbs-up Monday in Tbilisi on a trip aimed to enhance NATO's partnership with Georgia.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Monday that he hopes a visit from NATO's chief will accelerate his nation's drive to join the Western alliance.

Saakashvili said Georgia and NATO should work to show that Georgia is "firmly on track" to membership and to "accelerate" Georgia's integration into the "Euro-Atlantic family."

That is Georgia's proper and rightful place, he said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, also speaking in Tbilisi, criticized Russia but spoke cautiously in remarks before a NATO-Georgia meeting. NATO officials, who are beginning a two-day trip here, will assess "how to further enhance" the partnership between NATO and Georgia.

The remarks came as de Hoop Scheffer and ambassadors from every NATO member converged on Tbilisi in a show of support for the country.

Russia objects strenuously to having Georgia join the Western military alliance -- an opposition that was underscored last month when Russia defeated Georgia in a war over Georgia's separatist, Russian-oriented province of South Ossetia.

The war began Aug. 7, when Georgian forces attacked to regain control of South Ossetia. Russian forces repelled the attack and then pushed into Georgia.

The United States strongly supports Georgia's effort to join NATO, support that Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated in Tbilisi earlier this month.

The NATO ambassadors' trip to Georgia was scheduled before the war. But it comes as Russia is strengthening its grip on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia, in a challenge to Georgia's NATO hopes.

De Hoop Scheffer said last week that NATO wants to show support for Georgia after Russia's use of "disproportionate force" against its smaller neighbor. And he has stressed NATO's condemnation of Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.

Scheffer and the NATO ambassadors are to visit Gori on Tuesday.