Withdrawals Fail to Stem EU Criticism

APKouchner, left, riding in an armored vehicle with members of the EU monitoring mission in Tkviavi, Georgia, on Friday.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday challenged criticism from his French counterpart that Russia had not fully complied with a cease-fire in Georgia, news agencies reported.

Russia, which invaded Georgia in August as part of an operation to stop Tbilisi's attempt to retake South Ossetia by force, last week pulled troops out of a buffer zone surrounding the province to meet an Oct. 10 deadline under a French-brokered peace plan.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday that he was sympathetic to Georgian claims that Russian troops should have left Akhalgori, a disputed pocket of South Ossetia that for years was de facto controlled by Tbilisi.

"Akhalgori is within South Ossetia's borders, so the [cease-fire] plan does not cover it," news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Germany, where he met with Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Asked in the Georgian town of Gori, near South Ossetia, if Russia had honored the cease-fire deal, he told reporters: "I think so, but partly."

"This is not complete. This is not perfect. It's just the beginning. This is not the end," Kouchner, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, said in a tent camp for Georgians displaced by the fighting.

After a tour of the buffer zone vacated last week by Russian forces — where human rights groups say hundreds of ethnic Georgian homes were wrecked after the cease-fire came into force — Kouchner took a swipe at the Russian military.

"It's always very sad to see houses destroyed and people coming back and discovering their belongings in desperate state," said Kouchner, speaking in English. "It was not a good march of the Russian army. Not at all."

EU foreign ministers could decide next week whether to restart talks on a strategic partnership treaty that the bloc has put on hold until it is satisfied Russia has complied with the cease-fire deal.

Kouchner said he did not know if this would happen and pointed to differences among EU members. "Some are not in agreement. There are people supporting Russia, and there are people fighting against Russia," he said.

Kouchner and EU observers will present the findings of his trip at a foreign ministers' meeting Monday, before a possible decision two days later by European leaders to restart the talks.

Moscow says it will keep a total of 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it has recognized as independent states, to protect them from further Georgian aggression.

Talks on the future of the two breakaway regions are due to begin in Geneva on Oct 15.

n The UN Security Council voted unanimously late Thursday to renew its peacekeeping mission in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone for another four months.

The council's 15-0 vote buys time for Russia, the United States and the European Union to work out differences over how to proceed with the UN's observer mission in light of the Russian-Georgian war in August.

The mission's mandate was extended until Feb. 15. Since 1993, the UN has kept dozens of political observers in Abkhazia, which is bordered by Russia to the north, to monitor a cease-fire with Georgia.

AP