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EU Georgia Monitors Fully Deployed; Meet Russians

The international community is eager for access to local residents like these displaced persons in Gori.
TBILISI (Reuters) -- A senior EU official has said that bloc's mission to monitor the cease-fire in Georgia is fully deployed and has met Russian forces to discuss their pullback from positions deep inside the Caucasus country.

Under a deal brokered by France after last month's Russia-Georgia war, Russian forces are due to withdraw from two "security zones" adjacent to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia by October 10.

The official, who asked not to be named, said more than 300 European Union staff -- civilian monitors and support -- were on the ground, and had begun deploying to field offices.

"They will be ready to begin the mission in the early hours of October 1," the official told Reuters. "At a technical level we met with the Russians over the weekend."

A Georgian Foreign Ministry source said EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana would visit Tbilisi on September 30.

Russia sent forces over its southern border in early August to repel an offensive by former Soviet Georgia, a U.S. ally, to retake South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.

Russian forces pushed into undisputed Georgian territory, drawing condemnation from the West but no sanctions.

Under the deal, the EU agreed to provide at least 200 observers to monitor the cease-fire.

The deployment of an additional 80 military monitors from the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been blocked by disagreement with Russia over their access to South Ossetia.

Russia insists the EU monitors will not be able to operate inside the rebel regions, which Moscow has since recognized as independent states. Russia plans to keep around 7,600 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The monitors, many of whom have a police or military background, will not carry weapons but will have light armoured vehicles for protection.

They are to be based in four field offices -- in the capital, Tbilisi; in Gori, just south of South Ossetia; in Zugdidi, near the Abkhaz border; and in the Black Sea port of Poti, from which Russian forces withdrew in early September.

A rapid-reaction force will also be based in Tbilisi.

Georgia is anxious to see the forces pull back after a war that rocked investor confidence, hit growth forecasts, and raised questions over the leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's former ambassador to Russia, recalled in July, accused the government of ignoring the opinion of senior diplomats when it launched the assault on South Ossetia.

"Had our government listened to them, we could have avoided war and its negative consequences," Erosi Kitsmarishvili told the Georgian weekly "Kviris Palirta."

The five-day war sharpened divisions between Western powers over the wisdom of inviting Georgia to join NATO in the face of Russian opposition and deepened concern over its security as a transit route for oil and gas bypassing Russia.