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Noble Partner Military Exercise Opens with Mass Paratrooper Drop

TBILISI – Joint military exercises codenamed Noble Partner kicked off Wednesday as US, British and Georgian paratroopers made a mass drop over a NATO training facility near the nation’s capital Tbilisi.

More than 1,200 troops including, 500 Georgian, 650 US and 150 British troops, are taking part in the exercises.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called the operation "a significant step in the continuation of our policy towards integrating further with NATO." At the opening ceremony of the exercises, Margvelashvili reiterated his previous statements that Georgia would eventually become a part of the Western military alliance.

Both the Georgian Defense Ministry and NATO allied command have described the joint exercise as an attempt to bring Georgia’s combat units up to Western standards and allow them to be integrated into NATO’s rapid response force.

Several dozen US M1A Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles were shipped across the Black Sea from NATO member Bulgaria to the Georgian port Poti on May 5 to take part in the drills. The deployment of US and British heavy armor is the first of its kind in Georgia and a major step towards boosting the small South Caucasus nation’s defensive capabilities against its giant neighbor Russia to the north.

Moscow has reacted to the drills with outrage, described the exercises as a "provocative move" by NATO that is aimed at destabilizing the Caucasus region and an attempt to check Russia’s interests near its own borders.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief but vicious five-day war in 2008. The Kremlin openly backs the pro-Moscow separatist governments in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two districts initially seceded from Georgia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union began to implode.

Moscow armed and fought alongside Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists in the 1991-93 wars, helping them defeat Georgian government forces and ethnically cleanse both regions of their Georgian populations.

Though NATO has yet to offer Georgia a formal path to full membership, the alliance opened a large joint training center outside Tbilisi in August 2015. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the opening of the facility as “a message of more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia."

The Noble Partner Training Exercise will take place from May 11-26.

By Nicholas Waller

11 May 2016 23:17