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Russia Says EU Force Cannot Enter Georgia Buffer Zone

TBILISI (Reuters) -- Russia has cautioned that EU cease-fire monitors would not have immediate access to its "security zone" inside Georgia, drawing accusations from Tbilisi that it was stalling a promised troop pullback.

After routing Georgian forces in a five-day war in August, Russia established buffer zones on Georgian territory adjoining South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two rebel, pro-Russian regions of Georgia that Moscow has now recognized as independent states.

Under a French-brokered pullback deal, the troops should withdraw from the zones by October 10, simultaneously with the deployment of EU monitors and Georgian police.

The EU mission of over 200 monitors begins on October 1. But the Russian military said a technical agreement on access to the zone adjacent to South Ossetia had not yet been finalized.

"From tomorrow, representatives of the European Union will begin conducting monitoring up to the southern borders of the security zone," Vitaly Manushko, spokesman for Russian peacekeepers around South Ossetia, told reporters in the Georgian village of Karaleti.

He said that "work will continue" on the question of EU access.

Russian forces pushed deep inside Georgia -- a former Soviet republic and important transit state for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea -- in August, after repelling an offensive by Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.

The war severely damaged relations between Moscow and the West, but drew no direct sanctions.

Roaming Militias

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, visiting Tbilisi, said in response to the Russian comments that he was "optimistic" the pullback deal would be met by October 10.

"I am optimistic that all parties will comply with the agreement that was signed," Solana told reporters. "We hope very much and we are sure that before October 10 that part of the mission will be completed."

The EU mission played down the significance of not patrolling the security zone from October 1. "The technical talks are an ongoing process," an official with the mission told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

"The idea was never for the Russians to completely withdraw by October 1. We'll give them time to pack up and go back," the official said. "We never expected to be running around the security zone from [October 1]."

EU officials are anxious to avoid a security vacuum that could be exploited by roaming militias, which human rights groups say have been terrorizing Georgian villagers.

Moscow plans to station more than 7,000 soldiers indefinitely in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, twice as many as it had there before the conflict. It remains uncertain when or if the EU mission will gain access to either region.

The EU says its mandate covers the entire territory of Georgia. But Moscow says the monitors cannot operate in the rebel regions and that this is in line with the cease-fire deal.

Georgia, an ally of the United States that has angered Moscow by setting its sights on NATO membership, said Russia was trying to "raise the political price of their pullout."

"They will do everything they can to prolong this process," National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia told Reuters. "The watch will start ticking on October 1 and stop on October 10."