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14 Jul, 2008 15:50

Fury grows over NATO war games in Ukraine

Ukrainian activists are out in force to protest against the country’s participation in NATO military exercises in the Black Sea. Campaigners say they’re increasingly worried about Kiev’s growing ties with the defence all

Sea Breeze was conceived long before the idea of Ukraine's accession to NATO became an issue.  But deliberations on the issue are now reaching crisis point.

“Yankee, go home!” – This is how some Ukrainians are welcoming a thousand NATO servicemen from 15 countries who have arrived in Odessa to take part in the ‘Sea Breeze’ war games.

A crowd of around 50 men voiced their disgust at what was happening. NATO soldiers on their way to the event's opening ceremony were met with a chorus of boos and jeers.

The driving force behind the anti-NATO protests is the Progressive Party of Ukraine. They have set up tent camps close to where the Sea Breeze exercises are taking place.

One activist explained how Ukraine’s relationship with the US-led alliance affected relations with Russia.

“Russian language, friendship with Russia and many other issues have become big problems for us now,” Anatoly Petrov said.

“It is perfidious aggression from NATO forces, an unhampered invasion. They are just breaking into our Motherland”.

But participants of the ‘Sea Breeze’ manoeuvres seem more concerned with their mission than the protests.  For them it’s about gathering experience on the Black Sea coast. This is the eleventh time it has been held.

In 2006, several thousand protested in the Crimean city of Feodosia, forcing the cancellation of the NATO exercises. This time security has been stepped up to avoid that happening again and the Ukrainian authorities have been keen to reassure all involved they are in control.

Nikolay Serdyuk, head of Odessa administration, noted that there's only 1.5 per cent of the Ukranian population are protesting.

“I believe 99 per cent have no problem with the NATO issue. At least, I can speak for the Odessa region, where for most of the 3.5 million people here, today is a regular working day and they're not into waving flags or chanting slogans,” Serdyuk said.

And the NATO officers picked up on those assurances. U.S. Navy Captian John Moore, co-head of the war games, said the protesters “didn’t bother them at all”.

“We believe that the city of Odessa have taken every efforts to keep us safe as well as allow them to work in a lawful manner,” he said.

The Sea Breeze war games will last for two weeks until July 26. The Progressive Party of Ukraine says it will continue picketing its sites until the very last day. But for now it remains unclear whether it will have any effect and whether their message will be heard.