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2008-09-08

Sarkozy in Moscow talks, pushes for EU monitors

By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press Writer

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday pressed Moscow to honor its pledge to withdraw troops from Georgia, while Russian soldiers prevented international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages in a tense zone around the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Georgia said Monday that far from withdrawing, Russia reinforced its positions on the outskirts of the Georgian Black Sea port city of Poti over the weekend.

Sarkozy has been criticized for giving the Russians too much room for interpretation in the peace deal signed Aug. 12, and his diplomatic blitz Monday to Moscow and Tbilisi may be his last chance to save it — and his own credibility as a peacemaker.


"This is the accord that should be put into place," Sarkozy said of the original cease-fire deal.


Sarkozy's EU delegation also was pushing for a quick deployment of several hundred EU monitors to Georgia. But just after Sarkozy arrived Monday morning, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Moscow is against an independent EU monitoring mission in Georgia.


Russian tanks and troops entered South Ossetia after Georgian forces began an offensive to gain control of the pro-Russian territory, which has had de-facto independence for more than 15 years. The Russians quickly repelled the soldiers and drove further into Georgia.


Nearly a month after the five-day war, Russian troops remain entrenched deep inside Georgian territory. Georgia and the West have accused Russia of failing to honor its pledge to withdraw its troops to positions held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7. The dispute has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to near Cold War levels of animosity.


But Russia says those troops are peacekeepers and that they are allowed under the accord to help maintain security around Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


Moscow has recognized the two regions as independent states, a move denounced in Georgia and abroad. The regions make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia's territory — and include miles of prime coastline along the Black Sea.


In South Ossetia, the convoy of four vehicles from U.N. agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti, but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. The three aid agency SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages around South Ossetia.


"We tried to do a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission. It didn't work out today as we would have hoped, and we will make every effort to continue to conduct such missions in the future," David Carden, who was leading the interagency mission by the World Food Program, UNICEF and the U.N. refugee agency, told The Associated Press.


The Russian general left immediately after the exchange, and a serviceman at the checkpoint said he was not authorized to comment on the reason for the refusal. Russian servicemen said the general was Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, head of the Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia.


An official at the headquarters of Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia said later by telephone later that the U.N. convoy was turned away because no official request for passage had been submitted. The official, who said he was not authorized to give his name to the media, said aid deliveries must be escorted by peacekeeping forces.


Carden said U.N. authorities had told the Russian of their plans.


On Friday, Russian forces barred the ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia from villages beyond Russian checkpoints where they wanted to deliver aid, assess the situation and verify allegations of ethnic cleansing, the ambassadors said in a statement.


A vehicle from CARE International on an assessment mission on behalf of several non-governmental aid agencies was also turned away Monday before the general arrived.


Wolfgang Gressman, an emergency response adviser to CARE International, said he had been turned away Sunday and told to come again Monday after submitting a list, in Russian, of the agencies involved.


Also Monday, Georgia accused Russia of a "campaign of harassment and persecution" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and urged the International Court of Justice to intervene to halt killings and forced expulsions.


Russia also accuses Georgia of crimes against humanity, for launching a massive attack last month on South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and dozens of civilians.


The 15-judge tribunal, unofficially known as the World Court, will likely take years to deal with Georgia's case.


Georgia, meanwhile, said that five armored personnel carriers and about 50 troops were added to a post near the Georgian Black Sea port city of Poti and one APC and 10 troops were added to a post on a main road into the city, a government statement said.


Georgian officials had said previously that there was a total of about 100 Russian troops at the two posts.


Georgia also said that two Russian air force jets illegally entered Georgian airspace Sunday and remained over Georgia for about 45 minutes.


At a Russian checkpoint in Karaleti outside South Ossetia, Tamazi Kaidarashvili, an ethnic Georgian who is one of only a few dozen people remaining in his village north of the checkpoint, said he hoped the EU would persuade Russia to withdraw forces.


"As long as the Russian boot is in the Caucasus, there will never be peace," he said.


____

Associated Press writers Steve Gutterman in Karaleti, Georgia; Vladimir Isachenkov and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow; and Mike Corder at The Hague contributed to this report.

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