NATO chief: Georgia making progress to join

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TBILISI, Oct 4 (Reuters) NATO's chief said during a visit to Georgia today that the former Soviet state is making progress towards joining the military alliance but it is still too early to set a definite entry date.

The United States has pushed for NATO membership for Georgia, which hosts an oil pipeline from Asia to Europe and is at the centre of the Caucasus region, but other members warn bringing Tbilisi in could trigger a fierce reaction from Moscow.

''Georgia has achieved significant progress on its way to the implementation of reforms,'' Interfax quoted the NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer telling students at a Tbilisi university.

''Independence of the judiciary system will have a particular importance to us. We will also keep an eye on the parliamentary and presidential elections.'' For a new member to join there has to be a consensus between NATO's 26 members.

Relations between Russia and the small former ally on its southern fringes have plummeted since pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili won power in a peaceful 2003 revolution and vowed to win back two pro-Russian rebel regions.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in wars after the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union.

De Hoop Scheffer first meets members of Georgia's government and then holds a news conference with Saakashvili, who is facing his biggest domestic challenge after opposition united this weekend and called for his resignation on corruption allegations.

Saakashvili has called the allegations lies.

France's defence minister, Herve Morin, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that Paris would not support Georgia's NATO bid if it meant Russia felt threatened and surrounded.

Russian soldiers stand as peacekeepers between the rebel forces of South Ossetia -- only around a two-hour drive from Tbilisi -- and Abkhazia, on the Black Sea Coast. The Georgians accuse Moscow of providing moral and financial backing to the rebels, with whom they sporadically exchange rocket fire.

This year a war plane flying from Russia fired a missile that landed in a field near a Georgian village, though it did not explode. Helicopters have fired on houses. Moscow military deny involvement in these incidents.

REUTERS JK HS1610

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