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EU Monitors Begin Georgia Patrols, But Russian Restrictions Add Confusion

French members of the EU observer mission near the village of Karaleti

French members of the EU observer mission near the village of Karaleti

(RFE/RL) -- The first of some 300 European Union observers have started a monitoring mission in Georgia. They are part of a cease-fire deal brokered by the EU after the August conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Under the deal, Russia agreed to withdraw all forces from territories outside South Ossetia and another breakaway region in Georgia, Abkhazia, within 10 days after the EU monitors deploy. But the Russians now seem to be complicating the sequence of events.

The EU monitoring observers began their mission when a column of armored vehicles marked with EU flags rumbled out of a field camp at the village of Bazaleti, on an initial patrol near South Ossetia.

A second column of vehicles set out from the city of Gori, also near South Ossetia, and other teams were reported patrolling near the western cities of Poti and Zugdidi, close to Abkhazia.

Withdraw From Buffer Zones

The EU monitors, who mostly have military or police backgrounds, are meant to patrol the areas of Georgia proper that were occupied by Russian forces during the brief Russian-Georgian war in August.

Under an agreement between Moscow and the EU, Russian troops are to withdraw from these so-called buffer zones by October 10, and the monitors will ensure stability in the vacated territory.

The EU monitors have no permission to cross borders from Georgia proper into the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have been recognized by Russia as independent states, and where Moscow says at least 7,000 Russian troops will remain.

But complications became evident even before the first EU patrol started.

Russian military spokesman Vitaly Manushko told journalists in Karaleti on September 30 that the EU personnel would not be allowed to enter the buffer zone leading to South Ossetia.

"The monitoring mission will only have access up to the southern border of the security zone because there is no agreement yet between the EU mission and the [Russian] peacekeepers on how it will function," Manushko said. "There is no agreement between Russia and Georgia and, unfortunately, we have not yet determined the number of Georgian police who will enter villages in the security zone, but consultations on this are still ongoing."

Entered Buffer Zone

Manushko set no date for the buffer zones to be opened up to the EU monitors, while the EU is working on the assumption that the accord foresees that the Russians will be gone and all the monitors installed by October 10.

But despite Manushko's assertion to the contrary, news agencies reported on October 1 that one of the EU patrols was in fact allowed to enter the buffer zone around South Ossetia.

Reuters and AFP reporters traveling with the patrol say that the EU patrol was stopped at a Russian military checkpoint marking the edge of the buffer zone, and then was waved through after about 10 minutes of discussion.

German diplomat Hansjoerg Haber, head of the EU observer mission in Georgia, told journalists in Bazaleti that it's too early to say whether the Russians are being obstructionist.

"[The Russians] have given us all sorts of reasons [for not allowing EU observers into the buffer zone], not only safety but also technical and administrative reasons," Haber said. "We will want to clarify the situation, and at the moment I would not like to pronounce an opinion on whether they really want to stall it. We have received assurances at the political level that we will be able to make patrols in the entire adjacent areas at the latest, October 10."

Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze has no doubts that Russia is going to make things difficult.

"This will take time, of course, and Russians will play with our nerves," Baramidze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "They will probably try to stage provocations and accuse us of various wrongdoings. But this [Russian withdrawal] remains our goal, and we are in full agreement with the European Union regarding our tasks and goals. We are determined to fight to the end politically, diplomatically, and legally to ensure that the agreement is fulfilled."
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.