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EU keeps watchful eye on Georgia's rebel borders

ODZISI (AFP) - Driving along the border of Georgia's rebel South Ossetia region on a hot summer day, two armoured jeeps flying European Union flags suddenly pulled over to the side of the road.

The sound of a helicopter echoed through the hills as a half-dozen EU monitors in blue berets emerged from the jeeps and began peering through binoculars.

Soon the helicopter came into view, its markings clear -- an MI-8 gunship, the red star of the Russian military painted on its side.

Flying low through a valley, the helicopter swept over the last South Ossetian village on the border and into Georgian-controlled territory, a clear violation of the ceasefire that ended last year's Georgia-Russia war.

"It's definitely on the other side," the head of the EU patrol, an Irish police officer, said to his colleagues, before telephoning the EU mission's headquarters to report the incident.

A few minutes later, at a Georgian police checkpoint on the border, the monitors watched as the helicopter turned in an arc, heading back over South Ossetia.

In the year since last August's five-day war, the EU has become the key guarantor of peace in this region, its 225 civilian observers patrolling along the borders of both South Ossetia and Georgia's other rebel region, Abkhazia.

Following the withdrawal of observer missions of the United Nations and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it has become the sole international presence in Georgia's conflict zones.

And what was initially seen as a temporary presence is starting to look much more permanent.

"When I came here I thought we would be here for one year or two and then hand it back to the OSCE and the UN, but now it's difficult to tell," the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), Hansjorg Haber, told AFP.

"Now all the expectations are concentrated on us," he said.

On July 27, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to extend the mission for another year, to September 14, 2010.

The mission was created under an EU-brokered ceasefire agreement that ended the war, which saw Russian troops and tanks pour into Georgia to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia.

Russian forces later mostly withdrew to within South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Moscow recognised both regions as independent states.

Looking back over the mission's first year, Haber said it had scored some key successes.

The presence of EU monitors appears to have had a significant impact in preventing violent incidents along the borders of the rebel regions, he said.

There has been some violence in recent months, including a bomb attack on an EU patrol in June that killed a Georgian driver, but far less than in previous years.

However, the mission's ability to monitor potential arms build-ups has been severely hampered by the refusal of Russia and separatist leaders to allow its monitors into the two rebel regions.

It has also had little success in building confidence. Despite agreements to hold regular on-the-ground meetings aimed at conflict prevention, the Georgians, Russians and separatists have rarely sat down for talks.

"We need to make more headway in confidence building," Haber said. "We're not going to solve (the conflict) but there must always be a dynamic element in it because as soon as that disappears there's the risk of re-ignition."

Pressure is growing on the EU to expand the mission, in particular from Georgia which wants an EU police mission on the ground in Abkhazia.

Experts say Russia's blocking of extensions of the UN and OSCE missions -- both of which had mandates to operate inside separatist areas -- has left a security vacuum in the region.

But Haber said there is little appetite among EU member states for an expansion of the mission, which is already the EU's second-largest civilian monitoring presence after Kosovo. (By MICHAEL MAINVILLE)

MySinchew 2009.08.02

 

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