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German and U.S. servicemen talk before an opening ceremony of the NATO-led military exercises "Noble Partner 2018" at Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 1, 2018. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

(reuters_tickers)

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's president denounced Russia on Wednesday for illegally occupying part of the country as it began two weeks of military exercises with the United States and several other NATO members.

About 1,300 soldiers from Georgia, 1,170 from the United States and several hundred from eight other NATO member states joined in manoeuvres falling just a few days before the 10th anniversary of Georgia's war with Russia.

Washington dispatched a mechanised company, including twelve Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, five M1A2 Abrams tanks and nine Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. Non-NATO Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan also sent soldiers.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, at an opening ceremony, said: "Today you are standing on the territory of a country, twenty percent of which is absolutely illegally occupied by our neighbour Russia."

Russia and Georgia fought a war in August 2008 over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. Moscow continues to garrison troops there and to support another breakaway region, Abkhazia, after recognising both regions as independent states.

The "Noble Partner" exercises are being held in Georgia for the fourth time. Russian officials have not commented on the event yet, but in previous years Moscow warned that drills could destabilise the region, a charge denied by Georgian officials.

The exercises were being run from the Vaziani military base near Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Russian forces used to be based there until they withdrew at the start of the last decade under the terms of a European arms reduction agreement.

Russia is also conducting its own military exercises in the North Caucasus region, which borders Georgia. The Russian drills, which started on Wednesday, are set to continue until Aug. 15.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters