Smooth start to E.U. patrols in Georgia
European Union monitors began patrolling Georgian territory Wednesday.
Karaleti, Georgia — European Union monitors began patrolling Georgian territory Wednesday, and Russian troops allowed some of them into a buffer zone around the breakaway region of South Ossetia despite earlier warnings from Moscow they would be blocked.
Russian peacekeepers had said Tuesday that none of the 300 observers would be immediately permitted to be in the buffer zone, raising concerns that Moscow was stalling on withdrawing its troops from Georgia as it promised to do after its war with Georgia in August.
But EU monitors were quickly allowed to pass through Russian checkpoints Wednesday near two Georgian villages on the perimeter of Moscow's so-called "security zone."
"The situation is very calm," said Ivan Kukushkin, a smiling Russian officer in charge of the checkpoint near Kvenatkotsa.
The spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana confirmed that the deployment of the monitors was going smoothly and that they have been able to go "wherever they planned to go."
Russia and Georgia agreed to the EU observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan following the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russians also dug into other territory in Georgia.
As part of the French-brokered cease-fire deal, Moscow agreed to withdraw its forces completely from areas outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the EU monitors' deployment – including from a roughly four-mile buffer zone they have created south of South Ossetia.
"The Russians gave us plans for dismantling their [check]points but didn't say when," EU mission director Hansjoerg Haber told reporters.
At the Russian checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kvenatkotsa, an armored personnel carrier was parked up the hill near camouflaged tents, and there was no sign of any preparations for a Russian troop pullback.
Russia still plans to keep about 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has refused to allow EU monitors inside the regions themselves.
"Show the flag, be friendly, show confidence," Mr. Haber told monitors in Basaleti, a town about 12 miles north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Mr. Solana, who visited Georgia on Tuesday, expressed optimism that Moscow would pull its troops back in the promised time frame.