The European Union on Wednesday began deploying 200 civilian monitors across parts of Georgia despite earlier threats by the Russian military to bar them from buffer zones surrounding the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A European Union official said that the unarmed monitors had been allowed through Russian checkpoints at several places to enter the buffer zone. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Under a cease-fire agreement brokered by France, European monitors expect to replace Russian peacekeeping units that have set up command posts in the buffer zones, while Russian forces are supposed to withdraw fully to South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Oct. 10.
“We now look forward to all parties fulfilling their commitments as much as the EU did,” Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said earlier after he inaugurated the mission at a ceremony in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
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Initial reports had suggested that Russian troops would prevent the monitors from operating in the buffer zones.
Vitali Manushko, the spokesman for the Russian mission in South Ossetia, said the monitors would not be allowed to enter the buffer zone until they signed a special memorandum “to define clear functions” of the European monitors and the Russian peacekeeping force.
“The monitoring process will be conducted up to the southern border of the security zone,” Manushko said.
But the European official said monitors had been allowed to proceed in several places, including near the village of Karaleti, where two cars carrying a total of 10 monitors entered the South Ossetia buffer zone. The official declined to say where else the monitors had deployed.
Earlier, witnesses said the unarmed monitors moved out of a base 25 miles north of Tbilisi, but at least one of their patrols came to a halt rather than challenge Russian troops at a roadblock controlling access to the buffer zone surrounding South Ossetia.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said at a news conference this week that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the monitoring mission, though he continued to press for a complete Russian withdrawal.
“Let's have no illusions with it,” he said. “We will not be happy until the very last soldier gets out of my country.”
The conflict in Georgia flared into open warfare Aug. 8, hours after Saakashvili ordered an attack on the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has strong Russian ties. Russia sent columns of troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and deep into Georgian territory.
Moscow formally recognized the two enclaves as sovereign nations Aug. 26 and posted troops in buffer zones outside their borders. After tense negotiations with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Russia agreed to allow European monitors to be deployed to the area starting Wednesday and agreed to withdraw its troops to the enclaves by mid-October.