Georgia parliament passes defence spending rise

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TBILISI, Nov 6 (Reuters) Georgia's parliament today approved the government's plan to boost defence spending in 2007 by nearly a fifth to 861 million dollars to improve its army to meet NATO standards and strengthen its defence capabilities.

Ex-Soviet Georgia is led by US ally Mikhail Saakashvili, who aspires to take it into NATO and has distanced the Caucasus country from Russia. Georgia hosts a pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

Deputies passed a government proposal to amend the 2007 state budget for the third time this year, boosting the overall spending by 350 million lari (216 million dollars) with 224 million lari earmarked for the military.

The country needs the extra cash to speed up military reforms that are required to join NATO and to strengthen Georgia's defence capabilities, the deputies said.

Tbilisi's chilly ties with Moscow have dipped to a low, with tension rising over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian regions where analysts say tension is strained to breaking point.

Georgia says Russia is supporting pro-Russian separatists in regions. Moscow says Tbilisi wants to regain control over the regions by stirring up tension and that Russian-backed peacekeepers prevent an ethnic bloodbath in the regions.

Georgia's parliament passed a plan by Saakashvili in September to boost the army to 32,000 men, from 28,000, citing rising ''threats from abroad''.

REUTERS NY RK2228

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