BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union foreign ministers agreed in principle on Wednesday to send monitors to supervise a French-brokered ceasefire between Russia and Georgia in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
“We are determined to act on the ground,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after briefing an emergency meeting on his country’s mediation efforts as president of the 27-nation bloc.
“The EU must be ready to engage, including on the ground, to support all efforts, including those of the United Nations and the OSCE for a lasting and peaceful settlement of the conflicts in Georgia,” a joint statement said.
Ministers also agreed to step up humanitarian aid urgently.
The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that as a first step, the pan-European security body would increase the number of monitors in place from 200 to 300 to help secure the fragile truce after six days of fighting.
“I have proposed an increase of OSCE monitors by 100,” Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, the OSCE’s chairman in office, told Reuters.
The ministers made clear any wider European peacekeeping operation would require a resolution of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has veto power.
“Many countries are ready to go ahead with us,” Kouchner told a news conference. “We need to go through the United Nations.”
Kouchner, who accompanied President Nicolas Sarkozy on his mission to broker a peace agreement in Moscow on Tuesday, said he was convinced Russia would accept a European presence and other nations could participate.
The United States meanwhile requested a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on the situation in Georgia, which could take place possibly early next week, a NATO spokeswoman said.
NO BLAME GAME
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he would make recommendations on the possibility of sending peacekeepers at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers in early September.
Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili arrived in Brussels to plead with the EU and NATO for assistance. She charged that Russian forces were still attacking the Georgian town of Gori, outside South Ossetia.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who visited Georgia for the pan-European Council of Europe human rights watchdog, cast doubt on whether Moscow would allow European monitors into areas it held.
“There are no signs of the Russians letting in anyone else,” he said. “I don’t really see it happening — at the moment the Russians are firmly in control.”
Bildt called the Russian military action “the gravest breach of the commitments of the Council of Europe”.
But many ministers, led by Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, declined to apportion blame and stressed that Russia’s cooperation was vital to help resolve the conflict.
The fighting highlighted EU rifts over how to deal with Moscow which have dogged ties since the bloc’s enlargement to embrace ex-communist central European states in 2004.
Poland and the Baltic states, wary of a resurgent Russia using its muscle to dominate neighbors, have condemned what they call Moscow’s aggression against Georgia and want the EU to take a tough line.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the EU should decide next month “whether or not and how” to continue talks on closer ties with Moscow.
“The international community will want to ensure that the message goes out that force is not the right way to take forward these difficult issues,” Miliband said on arrival.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said there must be consequences for Russia’s “unacceptable and unproportional” use of force.
But Steinmeier retorted: “I see no point in us getting lost in a long debate today about responsibility for and origins of the escalation of the last few days.
“You can decide to make strong statements with one-sided condemnations, or you can look to the future and take a real role in stabilizing the situation,” he said.
U.S.-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who provoked Russian retaliation by sending Georgian troops to recapture the Moscow-backed rebel region last week, accepted Sarkozy’s plan, lightly modified, late on Tuesday in Tbilisi.