EU monitors enter Georgian buffer zones

A014683216.jpgNABAKHTEVI, Georgia (Reuters) – EU monitors entered a Russian-controlled buffer zone around Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia for the first time Wednesday in what they said was a smooth start to their peacekeeping operation.

The 200-plus EU monitors began deploying under a French-brokered ceasefire deal that should see Moscow pull troops back within 10 days from two buffer zones inside Georgia, occupied during a war in August.

The Russian military and EU officials had said earlier there was still no agreement on full access to the zones. But on Wednesday, three EU patrols entered the South Ossetia buffer zone at separate locations, passing Russian checkpoints.

A smooth deployment is critical to the success of the peace deal and will test Russia’s willingness to stick to its terms. The crisis over Georgia, an aspiring NATO member and key transit state for exports of Caspian Sea oil and gas, has gravely damaged Moscow’s relations with Europe and the United States.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would pull back its troops in line with the ceasefire deal.

“Russian peacekeepers will be withdrawn from Georgia within the agreed dates,” Medvedev said in Russia’s second city of St Petersburg at a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

“The process has begun,” EU mission head Hansjoerg Haber told reporters at the end of the day. “We are entering the adjacent areas and this is the beginning of the takeover.”

A Reuters reporter traveling with one of the patrols, led by French civilian monitors, entered the buffer zone in the village of Nabakhtevi, west of the town of Gori.

After lengthy discussions with Russian commanders, a second patrol entered at Karaleti, in an area where human rights groups say paramilitaries have been looting and attacking ethnic Georgian villages since the war, forcing thousands to flee.


The EU mission said it hoped to coordinate a “step-by-step” withdrawal of Russian forces and simultaneous return of Georgian police to the buffer zones to avoid a security vacuum that could be exploited by roaming militias.

Haber said contacts with Russian forces should ensure an orderly withdrawal that would allow Georgia to deploy “appropriate law enforcement units.”

Georgia welcomed the monitors’ access to the buffer zone.

“It is once more confirmation that when the international community is unified and resolute, the Russians are compelled to comply,” said National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia.

Russia has said the EU monitors will not be allowed inside South Ossetia or a second breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, both of which it has recognized since the conflict as independent states. Moscow says it can guarantee security in the rebel regions, where it plans to post more than 7,000 troops.

As the monitors set off, access remained an issue, with Haber saying assurances offered by Russia at the political level were “understood differently” by the military on the ground.

He told reporters in the morning Russian forces had given “all sorts of reasons” for initially denying access.

Skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops erupted in war in August when Georgia’s army tried to retake South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in 1991-92.

Russia responded with a powerful counter-strike that drove the Georgian army out of Moscow-backed South Ossetia. Its forces then pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks.

The West has condemned Russia for a “disproportionate response” to Georgia’s actions and has repeatedly demanded that Moscow pull its troops out of the buffer zones inside Georgia.

In Tbilisi, the Georgian police displayed what they said was a Russian unmanned reconnaissance drone that fell out of the sky Tuesday just outside South Ossetia. “This is our territory, we control it,” said spokesman Shota Utiashvili.

A Russian military spokesman said he could not confirm the Georgian claim, the Russian news agency Interfax reported

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