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High placed US energy department officials have indicated that the United States would be interested in seeing Kazakhstan commit its Caspian reserves to transport to the West through the pipeline, along one of the few routes that avoids Russian territory.

In a separate security program, the International Narcotics and Law-enforcement program, the United States has provided Azerbaijan with training on how to protect the pipeline.

"We also do training with the navy on how they may protect assets at sea," Harnish said.

US defense contractor Washington Group International and handful of military consultants have so far helped construct two radar stations and a computerized operational headquarters in Azerbaijan.

If the program is expanded according to plan, that temporary facility will be replaced by a larger Joint Control and Command Center that will analyze data collected by both the navy and the coast guard.

One of the largest US overseas defense contractors, the Washington Group stressed that the assistance it was providing to the Azerbaijani military was non-lethal.

"Although we are supporting the Azeri navy, this is not connected with any kind of weaponry," said Zaur Aliyev, support service manager for the Washington Group's Baku office.

The US-built radar stations, as well as a network of Azerbaijan's own Soviet-era radars, have already begun to sweep Azerbaijan's territorial waters.

They are looking in particular for boats carrying illicit cargoes such as weapons of mass destruction, illegal narcotics, conventional weaponry and suspected militants, Harnish said.

Kazakhstan can expect similar assistance if it joins up, the diplomat said.

With Iran and Russia straddling its borders, Azerbaijan itself has remained tight lipped on the military assistance it receives from the United States.

A defense ministry spokesman, Ramiz Melikov, told AFP "no such program exists," in reference to the Caspian Guard initiative.

Meanwhile, rumors that the US plans to open a full fledged military base here have been denied both by the Azerbaijani authorities and US officials.

The Caspian guard program does not target any particular country in the region, Harnish said.

However one of the US built radars is positioned just a few kilometers (miles) from the Iranian border in Astara while another sits atop a mountain north of the capital Baku, and south of Russia's volatile North Caucasus.

News selected by Luc MATHIAS, source BakuToday.net

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