Georgia

Interview - EU calls on Russia troops to quit Georgian village

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- EU wants Russian forces to quit Georgian village

- Says detentions fuelling tension

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI, Dec 12 (Reuters) - European Union monitors in Georgia called on Russian forces on Saturday to pull back from a disputed village and warned that detentions on both sides of the de facto border with South Ossetia were raising tension.

The 225-strong mission deployed just over a year ago after a five-day war in which Russia crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia after months of rising tension.

Mission head Hansjoerg Haber told Reuters that access to satellite imagery had improved surveillance over South Ossetia, which the unarmed EU monitors are not allowed to enter.

But Russia remained in violation of an EU-brokered ceasefire agreement that called for the withdrawal of all forces to pre-war positions, he said.

The fighting took place in a region crossed by key energy routes to the West. Two months after the war, Russian forces pulled back from a buffer zone inside Georgia proper, but kept soldiers in the buffer zone village of Perevi, angering Georgia.

Russia has recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's other rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states and says it has several thousand troops in both territories under bilateral agreements.

"Even if you accept this interpretation for a moment, the Russians are not complying with it (the ceasefire deal) because they are holding a checkpoint in Perevi, which is clearly outside South Ossetia," Haber said.

"I think the time has come to solve this problem."

Russian troops pulled back from Perevi on Dec. 12, 2008, but returned the same day when Georgian forces moved in. The village lies on an access road to South Ossetia's western flank.

The mandate of the mission was renewed in September for one year, and Haber said he expected it to be renewed again.

He said the monitors had recently improved cooperation with the European satellite centre, going some way to compensate for the lack of access on the ground to South Ossetia.

"We can verify some of the information that we get from the other side to some degree of certainty," he said.

But confidence-building between Georgia and the two breakaway regions remains a serious problem, exacerbated by a spate of detentions on the poorly defined boundary between Georgia and South Ossetia, he said.

"Confidence-building is also a part of our mandate and is progressing very unevenly in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian theatres," he said. "There are some practical problems on the ground. Especially on the Ossetian theatre -- detentions on both sides of the administrative boundary line."

"I think if we can solve this problem, we can make progress on confidence building."

Two Georgian teenagers were jailed in South Ossetia last week and two were freed after European mediation. Georgia in turn freed five Ossetians who had been released by a court but were then held by police in a house for four months.

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; editing by Tim Pearce)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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