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U.S. vows aid to Georgia to boost visa-free travel to EU

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves as he departs Abu Dhabi International Airport February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves as he departs Abu Dhabi International Airport February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States pledged assistance to Georgia on Wednesday to help the former Soviet republic with visa-free travel to the European Union, a move that will spur its efforts to boost ties with the West.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn't elaborate on the plan, which comes as Washington increases its support for Georgia and Moldova, which are seeking more integration with Western Europe and rejecting pressure from former master Russia.

"Today I am announcing additional assistance by the United States to help support Georgia's Euro-Atlantic vision, specifically to help Georgia achieve visa-free travel with the EU and to mitigate the hardships by borderization along the occupied territories," Kerry said at the start of meetings with Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili.

Kerry was referring to occupied territories like Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, the center of a brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

Garibashvili told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that Russian forces had resumed building a barbed wire fence on the border of South Ossetia following the recent conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Kerry lauded Georgia's economic reforms and urged the government to quickly implement plans to boost trade with the United States and with Europe.

"Strict adherence to rule of law and steadfast commitment to the process will encourage the confidence of investors and will serve as a catalyst for integration with Europe," Kerry said.

Referring to tensions with Russia, Kerry urged Georgia to "look forward and leave the past in the past."

Garibashvili's visit to Washington comes amid political turmoil in another former soviet state, Ukraine, which rejected deeper ties with the EU when president Viktor Yanukovich abandoned a proposed trade pact with the EU in November, sparking violent street clashes.

Like Ukraine, Georgia has been caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between integrating with Europe and the West, or staying under Moscow's influence.

Kerry rejected the idea that the situation in Ukraine was a "zero-sum game" between Russia and the West.

However, there were fears on Wednesday that tensions with Russia could escalate after Moscow said about 150,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in the Western military district that borders Ukraine.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bernadette Baum)

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