Powell on mission to reassure Putin

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has arrived in Russia, where he is to address lingering US concerns about democracy, Moscow's role in the former Soviet republics and weapons of mass destruction.

    Powell denied US wants military bases established in Georgia

    Powell, who attended Sunday's inauguration of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, is due to meet on Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov.
    The top US diplomat arrived straight from Tbilisi, where he had sought to assure Moscow that Washington had no intention of seeking to establish military bases in Georgia, a former Soviet republic still part of Russia's inner sphere of influence.

    Once the US "Train and Equip" programme, launched in 2002 is concluded there will be continuing regular contacts but "there are no plans for permanent military bases," Powell told a news conference there.

    The programme is designed to enhance Georgia's "anti-terrorist capability", code for tackling Chechen separatists who have used the country to shelter and plan attacks against Russian forces in Chechnya.

    "We're not thinking of bases. We'll talk to the Georgians, but the suggestion that the US is looking for permanent bases is incorrect," he said.

    The US presence in Georgia consists of some 200 troops and was originally expected to last for six months from the date the first soldiers arrived in April 2002.

    But the extended stay has fuelled criticism that the US wants a permanent base in the region, seen as vital to Washington's strategic interests.

    Sales to Saddam

    He is also seeking to follow up on unresolved allegations that Russian firms sold sophisticated military technology to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, calling the issue "an area of continuing discussion."

    "There are still some outstanding questions in my mind, questions that I have raised with Ivanov previously," he said in a joint press conference with Saakashvili.

    "He has provided answers to some of the questions with respect to what equipment might have gone in or not gone in, but I can't say that every question in our inventory of questions has been completely answered."


    Russia is expected to close its
    remaining bases in Georgia

    Russia's enduring influence and military presence in former Soviet states is high on the agenda for this week's visit, and Powell said he would push Moscow to withdraw its remaining troops from Georgia and Moldova.

    Russia is balking at meeting commitments made in 1991 to close its remaining military bases in Georgia, where two - home to 3000 troops - are still in operation, and to pull its soldiers out of Moldova.

    Other areas of discussion will cover US wishes for further democratisation in Russia and greater cooperation in US-led anti-terrorism operations in Central Asia.


    "On the issue of what is often referred to as 'managed democracy,' I'm sure we'll have open and candid conversations about our view of some of the actions we have seen in recent months," Powell said.

    Powell has also said he will raise US concerns about how Russian media is allowed to cover elections, especially following last month's parliamentary vote in which state-controlled television stations all but ignored Putin's opponents.

    This is of particular concern given the fact that Putin will be up for re-election in March, he said, adding however, that Washington realised the president was exceedingly popular with the Russian electorate.



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