EU Monitors Start Patrols in Georgia

ReutersObservers from the European Union monitoring mission visiting the Georgian village of Mukhrani on Wednesday.
GORI, Georgia -- European Union monitors began patrolling Georgian territory Wednesday under a French-brokered peace deal, and Russian troops allowed some monitors into a buffer zone around South Ossetia despite insisting earlier that they would be blocked.

A Russian peacekeeping statement Tuesday saying monitors would not be allowed on Georgian territory around the separatist region of South Ossetia had raised concern that Moscow was stalling on a withdrawal of its troops, which was promised after its August war with Georgia.

But when EU observers arrived Wednesday at Russian checkpoints near the Georgian villages of Karaleti and Kvenatkotsa, at the perimeter of Russia's so-called "security zone" on Georgian territory, Russians quickly let them move into the area.

The Russian soldiers did not allow reporters to follow the observers into the buffer zone near Kvenatkotsa but let Georgian civilians pass after examining their vehicles.

"The situation is very calm," Ivan Kukushkin, a Russian officer in charge of the checkpoint said with a smile.

EU mission head Hansjoerg Haber told reporters that the Russian military told the EU monitors not to enter the buffer zone, citing security concerns.

"We received different signals," Haber told reporters. "We want to clarify these differences in the coming hours."

Another group of EU monitors visited the village of Odisi in a different sector just outside South Ossetia.

Russia and Georgia agreed to the EU observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan following the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and occupying other territory in Georgia.

As part of the deal, Moscow agreed to withdraw its forces completely from areas outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the EU monitors' deployment Wednesday -- including from a roughly 7-kilometer buffer zone they have created southward from South Ossetia.

"The Russians gave us plans for dismantling their [check]points but didn't say when," Haber told reporters.

At the Russian checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kvenatkotsa, an armored personnel carrier was parked on a hill near camouflaged tents, and there was no sign of any preparations for a Russian troop pullback.

Russia still plans to keep around 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and has refused to allow EU monitors inside the regions themselves.

"Show the flag, be friendly, show confidence," Haber told monitors in Basaleti, about 20 kilometers north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.