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US, Azerbaijan Forge Military Ties

March 29, 2002

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) _ The United States and Azerbaijan militaries will cooperate on peacekeeping, bolstering Azerbaijan’s coastal security and improving Azerbaijan’s airfields to NATO standards, a U.S. official said Thursday.

The agreement underlines growing American involvement in the strategically vital Caucasus Mountains region. It was signed after a two-day visit by a Defense Department delegation.

U.S. military experts will arrive soon to study which areas of the Azerbaijani military require modernizing and strengthening.

``The goal of our security cooperation is to counter threats such as terrorism, to promote peace and stability in the Caucasus, and to develop trade and transport corridors″ to boost economic growth, said Mira Ricardel, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia Policy.

The United States will provide $4.4 million in military aid to Azerbaijan _ the same amount pledged to Armenia, its chief rival _ but that could be increased.

The border protection efforts aim to prevent drugs and weapons from flowing through the country, Ricardel said.

Russia has long alleged that Chechen rebels receive weapons, funds and fighters via predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, which borders the Russian region of Dagestan, next to Chechnya.

Last month, U.S. officials announced a $64 million program to train troops in Georgia, another Caucasus nation, in anti-terrorist techniques. That program intends to help Georgia combat terrorists in its lawless Pankisi Gorge region bordering Chechnya.

The recent announcements prompted some Russian politicians to voice alarm at the growing U.S. presence in the region. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted that presence.

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