Cheney heads for Tbilisi as US boosts Georgia aid

US Vice President Dick Cheney heads to Tbilisi on Thursday for talks with Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, a day after the United States boosted aid for the beleaguered ex-Soviet republic, reported AFP.

Cheney's visit aims to demonstrate US backing for strategic countries in the region as relations with Russia sink to a post-Cold War low, and Washington bids to form new energy alliances to offset Moscow's oil and gas dominance.

The trip marks the highest level visit by a US official to Georgia since the the country fought a five-day war last month with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. It is also Cheney's first-ever visit to Tbilisi.

After talks with Saakashvili, the US vice president is to visit US aid operations in Georgia, a day after promising that Washington had a "deep and abiding" interest in the region's security.

His tour is to highlight President George W. Bush's announcement of a one billion dollar aid package for its embattered ally, and shore up the US-Georgian alliance after Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev described the Georgian leader as a "political corpse."

The United States has taken a lead role supporting Georgia since hostilities erupted in August over Moscow-backed rebel regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia has since recognized as independent, and denied Russia's charges that US naval ships bringing aid through the Black Sea port could mask a military buildp.

Cheney started his tour in oil-rich Azerbaijan, touting common interest in energy security and noting that even though parts of the trip were planned earlier, his talks with Aliyev took place "in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia."

Recalling how he and Aliyev "met some years in the past when we were both in the energy business," Cheney vowed that "The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well being and security."

After talks with chiefs of oil companies in the region, he pressed for more routes for energy exports, in a reference to oil and gas pipelines in the works that would avoid going through Russia, but offered no details on whether any new deals were struck.

"Together with the nations of Europe, including Turkey, we must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources," Cheney said.

Cheney's tour of Georgian relief operations is certain to anger Russia, whose Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned this week that Russia would react to a build-up of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea.

A NATO spokesman on Wednesday promised "there is no NATO naval build-up in the Black Sea, only a temporary deployment of four ships participating in a training and interoperability exercise" off the coasts of Bulgaria and Romania."

The West has expressed outrage at Russia's military action and its recognition of the rebel regions, and NATO's chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer plans to visit Georgia later this month for further aid talks.

The European Union also plans an international donors conference for Georgia and the International Monetary Fund announced it would come up with a 750-million-dollar package for Georgia, if its executive board approves.

The conflict cost Georgia about two billion euros (2.8 billion dollars), according to a new study by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW).

Announcing the billion-dollar US aid package in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "With our full support and the support of the entire free world, a democratic Georgia will survive, will rebuild and will thrive."

Bush will work with US lawmakers, who may have to approve the funds, to free up to 570 million dollars this year, with the remaining 430 million coming later, she said.

The Georgian parliament on Wednesday formally lifted a state of war declared when the hostilities broke out, but Russia and Georgia closed down diplomatic exchanges.

Russia suspended visas for Georgian citizens and repeated that it would pull troops out of Georgia only when a French-brokered peace plan was fully implemented.

Moscow withdrew most of its forces under the ceasefire plan, but thousands of Russian troops that Moscow terms "peacekeepers" remain in the two rebel regions and in a buffer zone.

Medvedev will seek backing for his country's intervention at a Moscow summit of seven ex-Soviet states on Friday.

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