TBILISI, Georgia -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a hopscotch tour Saturday of three former Soviet republics, offered closer U.S. military ties in return for help fighting terrorism in Afg-hanistan and elsewhere.
Rumsfeld told the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia that he endorsed action by the U.S. Congress to lift sanctions that bar some U.S. military relations with the two countries.
In Georgia, criticized for not cracking down hard enough on terrorism, Rumsfeld said he discussed with President Eduard Shevardnadze "our desire to see that we cooperate fully with respect to the probe of terrorism."
Shevardnadze, at a joint news conference, said he told Rumsfeld, "We must keep in mind that the sources feeding and fostering terrorism, such as nationalism and violent separatism, exist in the world."
Rumsfeld was headed today to Uzbekistan, home to some of the U.S troops used in Afghanistan. He then was to go to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Belgium.
Rumsfeld said the Afghan and U.S. forces fighting al-Qaida around the Tora Bora region where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding were making good progress.
Assisting U.S. warplanes
The small countries Rumsfeld visited occupy a strategic spot next to Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia.
All three have offered to let U.S. warplanes fly over their countries during the fighting in Afghanistan. American military planes have gassed up in Armenia on the way to the war front, a U.S. official said.
U.S. officials were vague about what the United States might seek in the way of future military cooperation.
"Stability in this region is as important to us as it is to you," Rumsfeld told Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, at a meeting in the capitol Baku.
Georgia has faced criticism from neighboring Russia for not doing enough to crack down on Chechen separatists, whose base is inside Georgia. Russia has bombed Georgia to attack the Chechens, an action the United States has condemned.
Chechens also have fought alongside Arabs in Afghan-istan.
Shevardnadze thanked the United States for already helping his country create a modern military and a force of border guards.
Providing military aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan is a bit trickier.
The United States imposed sanctions against both nations. They prohibit any military cooperation because of the fighting between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.
Despite a 1994 cease-fire, there still is sporadic violence.