EU backs truce monitors for Georgia
Thursday, 14 August 2008

MOSCOW/BRUSSELS, Wed Aug 13, ( - The European Union on Wednesday backed sending peacekeeping monitors to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia to supervise a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia after days of heavy fighting.

"The EU is ready to engage, including on the ground, to support the efforts of the United Nations and the OSCE," Irish Development Minister Peter Power said after an emergency EU meeting in Brussels.

A NATO spokeswoman said the United States had requested a meeting of alliance foreign ministers on the Georgia crisis, as Western powers grope for a response to Russia's overwhelming show of force against its tiny neighbor.

Russia's far greater military might humiliated Georgia, which last Thursday launched an unsuccessful strike to try to retake the pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, provoking massive retaliation from Moscow.

Flags flew at half mast as Russia and Georgia mourned their dead from five days of fighting.

Despite an EU-sponsored ceasefire, the United States said it had credible reports of continued violence in South Ossetia and urged Russia to restrain "irregular forces" from attacking civilians.

"We have credible reports of villages being burned, shootings and killings," said the U.S. envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of perpetrating "atrocities" in South Ossetia.

"Russian tanks are going through villages inhabited by (the) Georgian population and throwing people out of the houses, pushing people into concentration camps that they are setting up in those villages and separating men and women," he told CBS Morning News.

There was no independent verification. In and around South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali, which was devastated during the Georgian attack, occasional small-arms fire resounded but there were no major incidents.

"The situation is purely a post-war one," said South Ossetian spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva. "Taking advantage of this lull, we are reburying those killed in the Georgian aggression.

Georgia accused Russia of sending dozens of tanks on Wednesday into the Georgian town of Gori, 25 km (15 miles) south of Tskhinvali, and Saakashvili said Russian forces had ransacked the town.

But Russia denied it had any troops in Gori and a witness in the town, the birthplace of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, told Reuters no Russian military could be seen. "I've been all over town. No tanks. No Russians," he said.

Witnesses said Russian forces had in fact set up two checkpoints on the outskirts of Gori and had occupied an abandoned Georgian artillery base 4-5 km (2-3 miles) from Gori town centre.

Russia's general staff denied media reports that a column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles was heading from Gori towards Tbilisi.


The conflict opened a diplomatic gulf between the United States and Britain, who condemned Moscow's "blatant aggression", and France, Italy and Germany, who were careful to avoid criticizing Russia, a key energy supplier and business partner.

Analysts said Georgia's failed attempt to seize South Ossetia by force last week made it much less likely that the breakaway territory, along with a second rebel region, Abkhazia, would return to Tbilisi's control in the future.

Russia says 1,600 civilians died when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, though the figure has not been independently verified. Moscow's General Staff says it lost 74 soldiers in the fighting, with 171 wounded and 19 missing.

Tbilisi puts deaths on its side at over 175, with hundreds injured. That figure does not include South Ossetia.

Moscow announced an emergency aid package for South Ossetia, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin pledging 10 billion roubles ($414 million) to rebuild the shattered region.

Tens of thousands of Georgians rallied on Tuesday night to denounce the Russian operations, which included bombing raids against mainly military installations in the country and limited incursions out of the separatist regions into Georgia proper.

Russia was unbowed, claiming a military triumph against its troublesome former Soviet vassal.

The EU-brokered peace plan would provide the basis for a U.N. Security Council resolution to settle the conflict.

But analysts said Georgia may yet have to make painful concessions, having been routed on the battlefield and forced to concede precious ground in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

French media said the peace plan mentioned respect for Georgia's "sovereignty and independence" but had no reference to "territorial integrity" -- possibly allowing for discussion about the future status of the separatist territories.

Abkhazia said on Wednesday that its forces had pushed out Georgian troops and captured the disputed upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge on the region's boundary with Georgia proper.

That was a major blow to Tbilisi, since the gorge was the only significant portion of Abkhaz territory under its control.

The West indicated it would call for a multinational peacekeeping force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to replace the Russian-Georgian joint force, and a new process to settle disputes that have simmered since both regions broke away from Georgian rule in the early 1990s.

The United States has accused Russia of a heavy-handed and brutal offensive aimed at toppling its close ally Saakashvili.

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