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OSCE Monitors Enter Russian-Controlled Zone In Georgia

OSCE military monitors on patrol in Georgia
KARALETI, Georgia -- International military monitors on September 4 entered a Russian buffer zone inside Georgia for the first time since fighting broke out last month over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russia has previously rebuffed pressure from the West to allow monitors into the area where, Georgia alleges, militias from South Ossetia have burnt and looted Georgian villages.

A Reuters correspondent saw two vehicles carrying unarmed monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) leave the zone through a Russian peacekeeping checkpoint 30 kilometers inside Georgia proper.

The OSCE confirmed it had "patrolled" the road as far as Megvrekisi, a Georgian village 3 kilometers short of the facto border with South Ossetia, a step it described as important.

"Access to the area has been a focus for the OSCE and international partners, and we welcome this important step," Ambassador Terhi Hakal, head of the OSCE mission to Georgia, said in a press release.

Georgia's Western allies have told Russian forces to leave, but the Kremlin says it needs the "security zone" inside Georgia to maintain order in the vacuum.

The OSCE's statement did not specify when the patrols would resume, or whether it had gained permanent access to the area.

Thousands of Georgian villagers have fled the area since Georgian forces pulled out in mid-August following heavy fighting with Russian troops for control of South Ossetia.

Georgia alleges that militias from South Ossetia and the north Caucasus have been terrorizing villagers under the noses of Russian peacekeepers.

Russia drove Georgian forces from South Ossetia and the buffer zone last month, repelling an assault launched by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to retake the territory from pro-Moscow separatists.