EU steps up Georgia patrols before war report

On the eve of a European Union report on who started the Russia-Georgia war, EU monitors have stepped up their patrols in Georgia to try to keep tensions from boiling over into violence, an official said Tuesday.

The August 2008 war ended with Russian soldiers driving Georgian forces out of the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia now has thousands of troops stationed in the two regions, which it has recognized as independent states.

Russia, in apparent violation of the EU-brokered agreement that ended the war, has not allowed EU monitors into the two separatist regions and tensions persist along their boundaries with the rest of Georgia.

But mission head Hansjoerg Haber told The Associated Press that the border area has remained largely quiet. After the EU report is released Wednesday, he said, “We hope it will remain the same.

“I think we have made our little contribution by reinforcing our patrols and our visibility,” he said of the 200-member mission. Haber declined to comment on what conclusions the report would draw.

Russia and Georgia blame each other for starting the war. The fighting began with a heavy Georgian artillery assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Georgia says it launched the barrage to try to repel Russian forces that it alleges had begun entering South Ossetia a day earlier.

Russia denies that and said it sent in a wave of troops only after the barrage began to protect Russian peacekeeping troops who had been in South Ossetia since it split from Georgian control during a war in the 1990s.

Russia also said it entered the fight to protect its citizens. Russia had granted passports to most of South Ossetia’s residents, a move that Georgia and many international observers considered provocative. In the months leading up to the war, Russia also undertook a number of actions that Georgia regarded as threatening, including sending warplanes over Georgian territory.

If the report blames Georgia, it would be a significant boost for Russia’s push to get international recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent — only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit. That would also likely undermine Georgia’s chances of becoming a NATO member anytime soon, a goal that President Mikhail Saakashvili lists as one of his top aims.

Putting the onus on Russia would likely reinforce Russia’s contention that the West is hopelessly biased against it and could chill the nascent attempts to improve Washington-Moscow relations.

Haber said one of the remaining concerns after the war is Russia’s refusal to allow monitors in the separatist areas. Russia says it is not bound by that aspect of the truce because the regions are now independent.

“We insist on our interpretation, of course,” Haber said.

Also Tuesday, Georgian officials complained about Abkhazia’s intent to change its landline and cellular telephones to Russia’s country code.

“This is a gross violation by Russia of the international norms and work principles in the communications sphere,” Georgian communications commission spokesman Kakha Kurashvili told reporters.

He said Georgia would ask the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union to take action if Abkhazia goes through with the plan.

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