NATO chief looks at Georgia membership

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TBILISI, Oct 4 (Reuters) NATO's chief was in Georgia today checking on its fitness to join the military alliance at a time when some NATO members are warning that bringing in the ex-Soviet state could trigger a fierce reaction from Moscow.

Relations between Russia and its 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.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap 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 parties united this weekend and called for his resignation on corruption allegations.

Saakashvili has called the allegations lies.

This is the first visit by De Hoop Scheffer in nearly three years. But analysts said that while there might be signals on Georgia's progress the meeting would not provide a definite answer on whether the country could join.

''The question of Georgia's joining the 26 member NATO alliance is decided by consensus (among member states),'' Shalva Pichkhadze, a Tbilisi-based analyst, said.

''Despite a substantial interest in Georgia, there are countries (in NATO) which have their doubts about Georgia's admission, particularly because of its unresolved conflicts.'' France's defence minister, Herve Morin, told Reuters in an interview yesterday that Paris would not support Georgia's NATO bid if it meant Russia felt threatened and surrounded.

A pipeline that takes oil from Asia to Europe runs across Georgia that itself sits at the centre of the Caucasus region -- a strategically important land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

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 PD BST1324

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