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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Exercises Kick Off in Georgia

APServicemen from Georgia and NATO member states attending a lecture Wednesday at the Vaziani base near Tbilisi.
TBILISI, Georgia — French and Canadian soldiers set up command headquarters at a Georgian base on Wednesday as NATO started military exercises that have angered Russia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, meanwhile, accused Russia of trying to foment a coup after a local tank battalion mutinied against his government on Tuesday. Moscow denied involvement.

The mutiny ended without bloodshed but cast a shadow over the start of the monthlong exercises, in which more than 1,000 soldiers from NATO countries, including the United States and allies, will practice a crisis response and train peacekeepers.

The command headquarters is being set up at the Vaziani air force base, formerly used by Russian forces, before field exercises start next week. The next few days will be spent preparing the exercises, officials said.

Russia has criticized the exercises on its southern flank as "muscle-flexing." Its envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Tuesday that the alliance would be better off holding the maneuvers "in a madhouse" than in a country where troops were "rioting against their own president."

Georgia's opposition, which has paralyzed central Tbilisi with weeks of protests demanding that Saakashvili resign, questioned the Georgian government's explanation for the mutiny.

"There are many versions of what really happened, but the one offered by the authorities is the least credible," said Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party.

The war games, a year in the planning, have increased tension between Russia and NATO just as the two sides resumed formal contacts suspended after Moscow's war with Georgia.

NATO said this month's exercises should not be misused.

"Georgia is just hosting the exercise, and nobody should interpret the exercise in a different way and use it for other purposes," a NATO spokeswoman said.

Georgia's government said the mutiny at the Mukhrovani tank base east of Tbilisi was part of a Russian attempt to disrupt the NATO exercises and foment a wider rebellion against Saakashvili.

Russia said the accusations were "insane" and accused Saakashvili of trying to shift the blame for weeks of opposition protests demanding that he resign over his record on democracy and last year's military defeat.

Military experts in Tbilisi suggested that the tank battalion might have fallen victim of the tussle between the government and the opposition on the streets of the capital.

The NATO exercises are being held a few kilometers from the Mukhrovani tank base. "The multinational training will go ahead in the planned time frame," Georgian Colonel Nugzar Tsintsadze said. "There was no threat."

Armenia on Tuesday joined Kazakhstan, Serbia and Moldova in pulling out of the NATO exercises that they had been invited to join despite not being members of the alliance.

Georgia and Azerbaijan, also not in NATO, are the only former Soviet republics left taking part.