By David Mikautadze and Kazbek Basayev
KAZBEGI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia and Russia reopened their only direct border crossing on Monday, more than three years after it was closed amid rising tension that erupted into war in 2008.
The Verkhny Lars pass is the only land crossing linking Russia with Georgian government-controlled territory. Other routes from Russia through the Caucasus Mountains lead to the Moscow-backed rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia closed the crossing in mid-2006 as relations with Georgia's pro-Western government soured. In August 2008, Russian forces crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia and drove deep into the U.S. ally's territory in a five-day war.
The new U.N Secretary General's special envoy to Georgia, Antti Turunen, said the opening was a step in the right direction.
"There are still many years ahead before you can talk about normalization of the situation but it's a good thing if the border is opening up," he told a briefing in Helsinki.
At the Verkhny Lars crossing, checkpoints on either side opened in the early hours of the morning, but by midday (0800 GMT) no one had crossed.
Analysts said the decision to reopen it was more economic than political, and would mostly benefit traders from Russia's landlocked economic ally Armenia.
Visas will not be issued at the border crossing. Russians visiting Georgia can only receive visas at the airport, while Georgians have to apply in advance to visit Russia through the Russian interests section of the Swiss embassy in Tbilisi.
Around 60 people, mainly local residents, gathered on the Russian side to protest against the restrictions.
"I have relatives, friends in Kazbegi, and I wanted to see them," said villager Vladimir Vardashev.
Russia cut air links with Georgia over the war, and Tbilisi severed diplomatic ties when Moscow recognized the rebel territories as independent states shortly after the conflict.
The U.S. administration of President Barack Obama and the European Union have since sought to mend ties with Russia, but tension over Georgia persists.
Underscoring continued U.S. support for Georgia, a $500,000 radar station was opened on Monday on the Black Sea coast to help Georgia's coastguard patrol and tackle smuggling.
The Georgian coastguard last year seized several Turkish-operated ships trying to trade with Abkhazia, drawing threats of retaliation from Russia.
The war threw into sharp relief Georgia's predicament as an aspiring NATO member located on Russia's southern border. In the weeks following the conflict, the United States angered Russia by sending warships carrying aid to the Georgian coast.
Last week, the USS John L. Hall, a guided-missile frigate, arrived in the port of Poti, 50 km (31 miles) south of Abkhazia, where Russian troops are building bases and coastguard ships patrol off the sub-tropical shoreline.
The warship moved further south on Monday to Batumi, where crew will conduct training in firefighting, law enforcement, boarding of ships and first aid.
"The visit of this frigate is part of our investment in the security of Georgia," U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Bass told reporters in the port, where the ship's crew was greeted with traditional Georgian dancing.
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Batumi, Georgia; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Charles Dick)