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    Ukraine to host NATO-led Sea Breeze drills despite protests

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    KIEV, July 9 (RIA Novosti) - A NATO-led tactical exercise will be held in Ukraine on July 14-26 despite possible protests from locals opposed to the country's drive to join the alliance, Ukraine's defense minister said on Wednesday.

    "Sea Breeze will take place regardless of any protests," Yuriy Yekhanurov told a government meeting.

    Sea Breeze 2008 is a multinational military exercise led by the U.S. and Ukraine, which has been held annually since 1997.

    This year Ukraine and the United States along with 15 other countries are expected to take part in the exercise to be held in the Odessa region, the Crimea, and the costal regions of the Black Sea. Ukraine will be represented by 500 servicemen, 15 ships, four airplanes, and ten helicopters.

    Ukraine's parliament, the Supreme Rada, decided in April to allow over 1,000 NATO troops, 15 surface ships, two submarines, and eight aircraft to participate in the exercise on Ukrainian territory.

    In May-June several Ukrainian left-wing politicians announced that they would organize mass protest rallies and disrupt the drills.

    Two years ago, the Sea Breeze 2006 exercise in the Crimea was obstructed by protests, forcing the United States to redeploy the Advantage cargo ship to another location.

    The Sea Breeze 2007 was held in the Odessa and Nikolayev regions, amid protests by local left-wing political groups.

    Ukraine's pro-Western leadership has been pursuing NATO membership since 2004, when President Viktor Yushchenko came to power. Ukraine failed to secure a place in the NATO Membership Action Plan, a key step toward joining the alliance, at a NATO summit in April, but was told the decision would be reviewed in December.

    A poll conducted in April by the FOM-Ukraina pollster showed a majority of Ukrainians oppose NATO membership.

    The poll found that 54.9% of respondents would vote against joining the military alliance if a referendum were to be held, while 22.3% would vote in favor.

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