TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Defense Secretary William Cohen promised Georgia's president on Sunday that the United States would continue to help the Caucasus nation develop its armed forces.

Cohen met for an hour with President Eduard Shevardnadze and Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze on the last day of a tour that included Japan, South Korea and Ukraine.

``I attach great importance to this visit,'' Shevardnadze told reporters after the meeting. ``I express my gratitude to the United States for all the help it is rendering our independent state, including defense and border guarding issues. Our talks were constructive and we have discussed a wide range of topics.''

Cohen said that Georgia had become a model of a democratic state, and for that reason the United States would keep up its aid to the Georgian military.

The United States has already supplied Georgia with a Coast Guard ship, and it plans to provide six helicopters and spare parts.

Cohen also said that the United States would do its best to promote a peaceful settlement of the Abkhazian conflict.

Abkhazian separatists drove out Georgian government troops during a 1992-93 war and have run the province since then. They have obstructed the return of more than 300,000 ethnic Georgian refugees who fled the fighting, and peace talks have stalled.

The Black Sea province has been rocked by frequent ambushes and clashes despite the Russian peacekeepers who have been stationed in Abkhazia since the 1994 truce.

Shevardnadze has accused Russia of siding with separatists and blamed the Russian peacekeepers for failing to guarantee the refugees' return.

He has been pushing for greater Western security assistance, and said in the spring that Georgia would welcome the chance to join NATO. It is already a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

However, NATO hasn't announced any plans to invite Georgia into the alliance.