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Officials Meet In Geneva For Talks On Russia-Georgia War

Russia's Grigory Karasin said a "substantial gap between the parties remains."
GENEVA/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Officials from Russia and Georgia have met in Geneva for talks on the wake of the August armed conflict over the separatist region of South Ossetia.

The meeting, which was mediated by the United Nations and the European Union, comes as Georgian officials are calling for an independent investigation into who started the five-day war.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Interfax that "the substantial gap between the parties remains" despite three hours of "intensive, poignant" discussions on security issues.

Karasin added that no documents were adopted during the meeting. "We have food for thought," he said. "We are still concerned about issues relating to the real measures to create a security zone in the regions bordering on South Ossetia and Abkhazia" -- the two separatist regions that declared independence following the Georgian-Russian war in early August.

While the talks saw little progress in repairing the major disagreements between the two sides, the fact that they met at all is already a sign of progress. Similar talks held in Geneva last month fell apart without the two sides ever gathering in the same room.

This time, the talks included not only Georgians and Russians but representatives from the United States, EU, UN, and OSCE, as well as delegates from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for the Georgia crisis, applauded mediators for restarting eight-party talks to resolve security and refugee issues left over from the August conflict. He said all sides agreed to meet again next month.

The addition of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian contingents to the talks was a minor success for Russia, which recognized the regions' self-declared independence following the war and lobbied hard for their representation at any postconflict meetings.

For now, however, the Abkhaz and Ossetian authorities retain a purely informal role. Georgia's reintegration minister, Temur Iakobashvili, told RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Okro Rukhadze in Geneva that if talks are to become official, they will have to include nonseparatists from both of the breakaway regions, who have closer ties to Tbilisi.

"This war has demonstrated to the whole world that the conflict is between Georgia and Russia in Georgia's two regions: Abkhazia and Tskhinvali district," Iakobashvili said. "Each of those -- Abkhazia, as well as the Tskhinvali district -- have two communities: one separatist and one nonseparatist."

The leader of the pro-Georgian administration in South Ossetia, Dmitry Sanakoyev, told journalists in Geneva that "an agreement was reached at the meeting that we need to create security conditions both for the Georgian population and for the Ossetian population. The same is true for Abkhazia, the Gali district. Discussions on these issues will continue.

"The atmosphere was normal," Sanakoyev added. "From the very beginning, we refrained from any aggressive rhetoric toward each other. Of course, the Georgian side, the Russian side, the Abkhaz side, and the South Ossetian all have their own grievances, and we intend to discuss these issues at our future meetings."

On the topic of security, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Gia Bokeria said after the meeting that "we discussed providing access to all observers, primarily OSCE monitors, inside the conflict zone, in other words inside the occupied territories."

Parallel Meetings

Two side-by-side meetings are being conducted. One is dealing with the continuing problem of the tens of thousands of Georgian and Ossetian refugees who have been unable to return home since the early August conflict.

A November 18 report by Amnesty International says continued looting and violence on and around the de facto border between Georgia and South Ossetia has kept some 30,000 people from returning to their villages.

A second group is discussing security issues. Moscow has yet to fully comply with the cease-fire agreement requesting that Russian forces withdraw to their pre-August 7 positions, and that EU monitors be allowed total access to the breakaway regions.

Resolving the dispute may be complicated by the fact that Moscow and Tbilisi remain bitterly divided over the issue of who provoked the conflict in the first place.

Russia says its troops moved into South Ossetia on the night of August 7-8 in response to attacks on civilians in the territory's capital, Tskhinvali. But Georgia says its assault on Tskhinvali came only after Georgian villages endured days of shelling by Ossetian forces.

International rights groups -- including Amnesty International -- say both sides are to blame for indiscriminate use of force and violations of humanitarian law. But Moscow and Tbilisi remain locked in a propaganda war over whose narrative of events is the most convincing.

On November 18, Georgia's UN ambassador, Irakli Alasania called on the EU to carry out an international investigation into the five-day conflict.

"We believe that we need to conduct a very thorough investigation, an international investigation -- something, by the way, which was called by the Georgian side from the outset of the breakout of this military confrontation," Alasania said. "And we dearly hope that the European Union's leadership will really try and make it happen that this investigation will be launched."

Alasania said Georgia was prepared to provide investigators with all necessary material on its part, including classified reports.