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Georgia In Talks On U.S. Conflict Monitors

TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgia has said it is holding "preliminary talks" on U.S. involvement in a European Union mission that is monitoring the boundaries with Georgia's two pro-Russian rebel regions.

"It would mean including third parties in the mission," Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria told Reuters on July 21, the eve of a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. "We have talked with the Americans about it. Our talks are at a preliminary stage."

Some 240 EU observers were deployed after a five-day war last August, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia on Russia's southern border.

The Kremlin has since recognized South Ossetia and the Black Sea rebel territory of Abkhazia as independent states backed by Russian troops. The unarmed EU monitors are denied access to either region. Their mandate is up for renewal in September.

Russia has welcomed the deployment of monitors by the European Union, which mediated last year's compromise deal that ended the war. But it is most likely to oppose broadening the cast of monitors.

Diplomats have mooted the possibility of expanding the EU mission since military monitors from the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) halted missions in June in Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively in a row between the West and Russia over sovereignty.

Bokeria said he "would not rule out" interest from Turkey in joining the mission.

The OSCE and UN mission deployed after South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Georgia's rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Diplomats say Georgia, whose U.S.-encouraged bid for membership of NATO set it on a collision course with Russia, believes direct U.S. involvement on the ground will send a clear message to Moscow of Western resolve.

Biden is due to arrive in Tbilisi on July 22 from Ukraine, a trip U.S. officials say is aimed at reassuring the U.S. allies they have not been abandoned in Washington's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia. He will also call for reforms in Georgia.

Analysts say President Barack Obama -- in need of Russian cooperation on arms control and Afghanistan -- is taking a less aggressive approach than George W. Bush to possible Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO, which Russia rejects as an encroachment on its borders.