EU observers have moved into a Russian-controlled buffer zone around Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. More than 200 observers will oversee the Russian troop pull-out from these zones next to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
European observers kicked off a mission in Georgia Wednesday to monitor a ceasefire and oversee a Russian troop pull-back after the brief August war that deeply shook this Caucasus state.
Observers from the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) also crossed into a Russian-controlled buffer zone near the rebel region of South Ossetia despite statements from Moscow that they would not be immediately allowed in.
"The start of EUMM operations went on smoothly. Patrols made first contact with authorities and the population," the mission said in a statement.
"They also passed several different Russian checkpoints and entered the so-called 'adjacent area'," or buffer zone, the statement said.
Mission head Hansjorg Haber said monitors would for the moment be focusing on patrolling areas around South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
"We have a mandate for the whole of Georgia but for now we will be focusing on adjacent areas," he told journalists.
Haber said no major incidents had been reported throughout the day and contacts with Russian forces would continue to ensure monitors had proper access.
President Dmitry Medvedev reiterated Wednesday that Russia was committed to withdrawing its forces from the buffer zones in undisputed Georgian territory by October 10, the date fixed in the EU-brokered ceasefire deal.
"By October 10, (Russian) peacekeeping soldiers will have withdrawn from Georgian territory," Medvedev said during a press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Strelna, near Saint Petersburg.
Somalia's ambassador to Russia meanwhile said his country would soon follow the lead of Russia and Nicaragua and recognise the independence of the two rebel provinces.
"The government of Somalia is preparing to establish diplomatic relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as soon as possible," Mohammed Mahmud Handule said in Moscow.
Moscow drew widespread international condemnation when it recognised the two regions as independent states in August after Russian forces repelled a Georgian military effort to regain control of South Ossetia.
Moscow said it was protecting Russian citizens in the region from Georgian aggression, but Tbilisi accused Moscow of having provoked the conflict in order to cement control over the region and destabilise its pro-Western government.
The EU mission, made up of at least 200 people, aims to stabilise the region and ensure compliance by Georgia and Russia with a peace plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU presidency.
Monitors in armoured vehicles on Wednesday departed from four regional offices in central and western Georgia, near South Ossetia and Abkhazia, AFP reporters and officials said.
An AFP correspondent saw one EU patrol allowed to pass through a Russian checkpoint near the village of Kvenatkotsa into the buffer zone after about 10 minutes of discussions with Russian soldiers.
Another EU patrol entered the buffer zone at Karaleti, a key checkpoint north of the city of Gori, a Russian soldier at the checkpoint told AFP.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky told the Interfax news agency that monitors would face no restrictions.
"Russia is not going to impose any major bans or restrictions or establish closed zones and areas," he said.
A Russian military official had said Tuesday that the monitors would be allowed to work only "up to the southern limit" of the buffer zone around South Ossetia.
Many of the EU observers have a police or military background. They include a large contingent of French gendarmes, while others are experts in human rights and judicial issues.
All will be unarmed, though they will have protective equipment including armoured cars.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the NATO military alliance said Wednesday a new NATO-Georgia Commission would meet at ministerial level in Budapest on October 10, the deadline for the Russian pull-out.
Georgian efforts to become part of NATO have infuriated Russia, which objects to the prospect of its old Cold War foe extending to its borders.
Medvedev has even accused NATO of having provoked the conflict with Georgia.
Date created : 2008-10-02