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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Georgians Finish U.S. Training

APGeorgian soldiers pledging loyalty to President Eduard Shevardnadze during the graduation ceremony in Tbilisi on Sunday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- A U.S. anti-terrorism training program created in Georgia amid fears that the country was becoming a haven for Islamic extremists has graduated its first battalion.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze congratulated the 558 soldiers and thanked the American military instructors who led them through the four-month course.

"This is one of the most significant events in the development of the Georgian military," Shevardnadze said at a ceremony Sunday in downtown Tbilisi, attended by U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles.

Washington's $64 million "train and equip" program for Georgia was launched to help Tbilisi form its own anti-terrorist units for action against militants believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and holed up in the lawless Pankisi Gorge near Chechnya. The gorge is also home to Chechen refugees and has served as a hide-out for Chechen rebels, criminal gangs and kidnappers.

The U.S. training program includes instruction in anti-terror techniques, as well as supplies of weapons, ammunition, uniforms and other equipment. It is part of the global counterterrorism effort that Washington launched after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Georgian officials have expressed hope that the U.S. training will bring their nation closer to the West and help strengthen the cash-strapped military.

"Georgia has recently applied for admission to NATO and is assuming an obligation to modernize its army in accordance with NATO standards," Shevardnadze said. "And I want to confirm that this is in the interests of our big neighbor, Russia, because its southern border will be well-protected."

U.S. Major David Grosso, who led the training program, said the Georgian soldiers who went through the program "have the same skills we've got in U.S. and NATO militaries, and I would regard them as a confident battalion."

Shakh Aivazov / AP

A trainer yawning during the ceremony.

Participants in the training program were paid well, with salaries around $190 per month for the soldiers and between $300 and $400 for officers. It is a princely wage in a country where salaries average $12 per month.

The second phase of the three-stage program is expected to begin in mid-January, with U.S. Marines in charge of the training.

President Vladimir Putin did not object to the U.S. training. But Russian-Georgian relations have been tense, particularly over the Kremlin's concerns about Chechen rebels using Georgian territory to stage cross-border raids. This summer, Georgia launched a police operation in the gorge that Moscow criticized as a meaningless show.

Putin threatened to unleash unilateral military action against rebels on Georgian territory, but the United States appealed to the Kremlin to respect Georgian sovereignty and let Georgian forces do the job.