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Georgia deploying 750 soldiers to Afghanistan

TBILISI – Agence France-Presse | 4/8/2010 12:00:00 AM |

Georgia will deploy 750 soldiers to fight alongside US Marines in Afghanistan this month as the ex-Soviet republic seeks to build closer ties with the West, the defense ministry said.

Georgia will deploy 750 soldiers to fight alongside U.S. Marines in Afghanistan this month as the ex-Soviet republic seeks to build closer ties with the West, the defense ministry said Wednesday.

The soldiers from Georgia's 31st infantry battalion will serve with U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, the ministry said in a statement. It said 25 servicemen from the deployment were sent to Afghanistan on March 29 and that the remaining troops will deploy in three groups in mid-April.

An official departure ceremony was held Wednesday at the Vaziani military base outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where soldiers in tan camouflage uniforms stood in formation as a military band played. U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday called Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili to thank him for the "significant contribution to the international effort in Afghanistan," the White House said in a statement.

About 170 Georgian soldiers have already been in Afghanistan since November, serving under French command, and Georgian officials have said the country of 4.4 million's troop commitment makes it the largest per capita contributor to the war effort.

Saakashvili, who came to power after the pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003, has been keen to boost Georgia's ties with the West and has sought membership in the NATO military alliance. Tbilisi's pro-Western efforts have infuriated former imperial master Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia in August 2008.

Saakashvili has said the deployment in Afghanistan is also aimed at giving Georgian troops much-needed combat experience that could be used in another conflict with Russia or with Georgia's Russian-backed separatist regions.

Georgia was also a key contributor to U.S.-led forces in Iraq, where 2,000 of its soldiers served in a dangerous zone near the Iranian border until 2008, the second-largest presence among U.S. allies in Iraq after Britain.

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