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EU Extends Georgia Mission, Holds Off On U.S. Joining

An officer from the OSCE Mission to Georgia observes the withdrawal of Russian troops, October 2008.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- EU nations have extended a cease-fire monitoring mission in Georgia for another year, but did not discuss the possibility of other countries, including the United States, joining the mission.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on July 27 agreed to extend the mandate of the mission until September 14, 2010, an EU official said.

There was no discussion, which some EU states had sought, of the possibility of other countries, including the United States, joining the mission, he said.

"Participation of non-EU countries will be discussed in the autumn," the official told Reuters.

Georgia wants U.S. monitors and weapons to help defend against what it says is a threat from Russian troops in two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at their nearest point 50 kilometers from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

But some EU states are concerned that inviting the United States to join the mission could anger Russia, a key energy supplier to the bloc.

"It is premature to discuss whether to change or integrate a new mandate or the number of participants, particularly non-EU states," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters.

UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring missions, which had operated in Abkhazia and South Ossetia until Georgia's war with Russia last year, have been forced to pull out of Georgia after Russia rejected extending their mandates.

This has left the EU as the only monitoring mission in Georgia, an important transit region for oil and gas to the West.

A statement agreed by ministers from the 27 EU states noted "with deep regret and concern" that agreement had not proven possible on the future of the UN and OSCE missions.

Moscow recognized the two breakaway territories as independent states after crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war last August.

The EU has some 225 unarmed monitors deployed in Georgia since last year's war to monitor a fragile cease-fire. But it has been denied access to either South Ossetia or Abkhazia and currently conducts patrols only as far as the de facto borders.

Analysts warn the mission has neither the access nor the means to prevent frequent incidents -- gunfire and bomb blasts -- escalating into full-blown clashes

During a visit to Georgia last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pledged Washington's full support for Tbilisi, urging Moscow to abide by a cease-fire pact and pull its troops back from the two rebel regions.