As hundreds of European Union monitors prepared to deploy Wednesday in Georgia, Russia said it would not allow them to enter a buffer zone surrounding separatist South Ossetia.
Tuesday's statement by Russian peacekeeping forces appeared to be another example of Moscow stalling on compliance with a cease-fire deal it reached after the August war with Georgia over breakaway South Ossetia.
Russia and Georgia agreed to the EU observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan after the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russian troops stayed deep in Georgia for weeks.
As part of the deal between Russia and Georgia, Moscow agreed to withdraw its forces from territories outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the EU monitors' deployment on Wednesday – including a roughly 4-mile buffer zone extending south from South Ossetia's edge.
But the Russian peacekeeping forces' statement said that as of Wednesday, the EU monitoring will take place “up to the southern border of the security zone, which was agreed upon by the parties.” The statement said there would be further consultations but gave no indication of when – or if – Russia would grant EU monitors access to the zone itself.
The statement came as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Georgia on the eve of the deployment of about 300 EU monitors outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It appeared to raise questions about when Russia will remove troops from the zone, including those at checkpoints controlling entry from Georgian-controlled territory.
At news conferences in Tbilisi, Solana did not directly answer questions on the Russian statement, but voiced optimism that Moscow would pull troops back from the security zone in the promised time.
“I am optimistic that all parties will comply with the agreement that was signed,” Solana said. “We hope very much and we are sure that before Oct. 10 that part of the mission will be completed.”
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili also skirted questions about EU access. He stressed that Georgia wants a complete Russian withdrawal.
“We will not be happy until the last Russian soldier gets out of my country,” he told a news conference with Solana.
An EU official played down the Russian statement, saying the observers had not expected immediate access throughout the zones surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “As far as we're concerned, we were supposed to have 200 monitors on the ground by Oct. 1. We have done our job,” said the official, who said he was not authorized to give his name for attribution.