Georgian boys welcoming USS John L. Hall sailors, background, at the Black Sea port of Batumi on Monday.
BATUMI, Georgia — U.S. naval forces started exercises with Georgia's coastguard on Tuesday along the Black Sea coast, in a sign of Washington's support for the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The start of the two-day exercises came as the Federal Security Service said it had finished setting up a coastguard division in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Black Sea tensions have eased since a dispute last year over the seizure by the Georgian coastguard of ships trying to trade with Abkhazia, recognized by Russia as an independent state after a brief war with Georgia in 2008.
Moscow's military crushed an assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the breakaway pro-Russian territory of South Ossetia in a five-day war in August 2008.
In the weeks after the war, several U.S. Navy ships, including the guided-missile destroyer McFaul, docked off Georgia's Black Sea coast, angering Moscow, which accused Washington of sending weapons.
"We'll be doing damage control training today … fighting a fire on board a ship, a hazard materials spill," Commander Derek Lavan said in an interview on board the guided-missile frigate USS John L. Hall.
"We'll show the Georgian team how the warship is made and what kind of equipment we use," he said, as a group of Georgian coastguards sprinted around the deck wearing gas masks. The training will include law enforcement and ship-boarding drills.
Russia remains sensitive to military cooperation between the West and Georgia, which wants to join NATO.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and the European Union have sought to mend ties with Russia, and — to the anger of Georgia — France plans to sell the Russian Navy four Mistral-class helicopter carriers.
Asked about the U.S.-Georgian training exercises, the head of the FSB's coastguard department, Viktor Trufanov, said, "It doesn't make us nervous," Itar-Tass reported.
Trufanov said the coastguard division in Abkhazia had been completed. "The situation on the Abkhaz borders are under control," he said. "The forces which are there right now are enough to meet all tasks."
Abkhazia signed a deal last month to allow Russia to build a military base for at least 3,000 troops on its soil. A naval base is also planned in the port of Ochamchire.
NATO warplanes will fly training missions over the Baltic states this month in a show of solidarity with former Soviet republics concerned about Russia.
The March 17 exercises will involve French, Polish and Lithuanian aircraft, a NATO statement said Tuesday.
The "defensive training" exercise will be "a demonstration of NATO solidarity and commitment to its member countries in the Baltic region," the statement said.
The announcement of the exercises follows France's plan to sell warships to Russia, a move that has raised concern in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.