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EU Debates Monitoring Georgia Cease-Fire

Refugees from South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali
BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign ministers are debating sending peacekeeping monitors to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia to help uphold a French-brokered cease-fire between Georgian and Russian forces.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged the EU to take a supervisory role on the ground when he arrived to chair an emergency meeting of the 27 EU foreign ministers as the guns fell silent in Georgia after a six-day war.

"The idea of having monitors -- what you call peacekeeping troops, I wouldn't call them like that -- but European controllers, monitors, facilitators, yes, yes and yes. That is how Europe should be on the ground," Kouchner told reporters.

Kouchner, who accompanied President Nicolas Sarkozy on his mission to broker a peace agreement in Moscow on August 12, said he was convinced Russia would accept a European presence. He did not exclude Russian troops taking part.

Despite eyewitness reports to the contrary from the region, Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili said on arrival in Brussels that Russia was still attacking the Georgian town of Gori, outside South Ossetia.

"Definitely, European monitors have to be on the ground. Europe has to get engaged physically on the ground and Europe has to stop that from happening," she told reporters.

'No Signs'

However, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who visited Georgia for the pan-European Council of Europe, cast doubt on whether Moscow would allow European monitors into zones that it had held or captured.

"There are no signs of the Russians letting in anyone else," he said. "I don't really see it happening -- at the moment the Russians are firmly in control."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier backed the monitoring idea. He said the EU should avoid apportioning blame and focus on how it could play a constructive role to stabilize its neighburhood, keeping channels open to Moscow and Tbilisi.

But differences over what consequences to draw from Russia's military action in Georgia emerged as ministers arrived for the rare August session.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the EU should decide next month "whether or not and how" to continue talks on closer ties with Moscow. He noted that the Group of Seven major industrialized powers had been coordinating their response to the Georgia crisis without involving Russia.

"The international community will want to ensure that the message goes out that force is not the right way to take forward these difficult issues," Miliband said.

'Blame Game'

Sarkozy's diplomatic success in Moscow and Tbilisi may make it easier for the EU to set aside deep rifts over who to blame for the war in the breakaway Georgian region.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who mediated on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the EU would have a role to play in peacekeeping.

"When we start thinking about peacekeeping, I think the EU should have a central role," he told reporters. "The blame game and the tough talk will start at a later stage."

However that did not suppress debate on the doorstep.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said there must be consequences for Russia's "unacceptable and unproportional" use of force.

Steinmeier retorted: "I see no point in us getting lost in a long debate today about responsibility for and origins of the escalation of the last few days.

"You can decide to make strong statements with one-sided condemnations, or you can look to the future and take a real role in stabilizing the situation," he said.

Humanitarian Aid

Ministers were also considering how to send in more humanitarian aid after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev halted military operations on August 12 and agreed to a French roadmap for a settlement of the conflict.

Bulgaria plans to offer its Black Sea port of Burgas as the main EU aid coordination centre, its Foreign Ministry said.

U.S.-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who provoked Russian retaliation by sending Georgian troops to recapture the Moscow-backed rebel region last week, accepted Sarkozy's plan late on August 12 in Tbilisi.

The conflict highlighted EU rifts over how to deal with Russia which have dogged ties since the bloc's enlargement to embrace ex-communist central European states in 2004.

Poland and the Baltic states, wary of a resurgent Russia using its muscle to dominate neighbors, have condemned what they call Moscow's aggression against Georgia and want the EU to take a tough line.

Vaitiekunas told Reuters on August 12 ministers would discuss a range of measures including halting EU assistance and cancelling visa talks as well as reviewing the negotiations on a new partnership agreement with Moscow.