Russia 'keeping international observers out of South Ossetia'

Russian forces and their separatist militia allies are keeping international monitors out of South Ossetia, according to confidential documents today.

Russian forces and their separatist militia allies are keeping international monitors out of South Ossetia, according to confidential documents today.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) documents obtained today say Russian troops stopped some observers from entering South Ossetia as recently as two days ago.

Other Western diplomats warned that Moscow is also blocking attempts to quadruple the size of the observer mission.

One diplomat said talks aimed at securing Russian permission to let the observers move beyond Georgia and have access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia are deadlocked by Russia’s refusal to grant unimpeded access to the volatile area to monitors with the OSCE.

The European Union has been racing to prepare a separate mission of 200 unarmed observers for Georgia by October 1.

Under an agreement brokered this week by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia would withdraw its forces from Georgian areas outside of South Ossetia and the separatist Abkhazia region after the EU observers are in place.

The Kremlin’s actions at the OSCE “throw into question the sincerity” of Moscow’s overall commitment to allow in international monitors and pull back, the senior diplomat said today.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Frolov answered reporters’ questions by saying the ceasefire agreement brokered by Mr Sarkozy said nothing about increasing the number of OSCE observers.

The permanent council of the 56-nation OSCE – which includes Russia – agreed on August 19 to boost the number of monitors to 100 to implement the August 12 ceasefire.

But in recent days Moscow appears to have been pulling back.

“Russia has gotten more and more hard-line,” said the diplomat, who has been intimately involved in three weeks of negotiations. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said today that the war was a moment as defining for Russia as the September 11 attacks were for the US. He also warned that Russia would protect its interests in other ex-Soviet lands irrespective of Western opinion.

Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the Vienna-based OSCE, said efforts to reach agreement over the movements of current and future monitors remained under way.

“No one is suggesting that these talks are easy, but they have not collapsed,” he said.

Diplomats, however, said delegates walked out in frustration after Russia rejected a compromise that would have sent the additional monitors initially to areas outside South Ossetia, while not precluding them from entering later.

The OSCE has 28 monitors in the area, but has been trying to send in 80 more to observe military movements since Russia invaded Georgia last month after Georgia attacked South Ossetia.

One document issued today said all 28 observers “continue to encounter difficulties in their movement to most of the areas of their deployment”.

“They are denied access to South Ossetia by the Russian Armed Forces deployed in the southern part of the area,” it said.

The same report also said that South Ossetian forces had refused to let them cross the border into a district they had been allowed to visit in the past.

Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations after last month’s war with Georgia over the regions.

A popular former ally of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili today questioned the wisdom of last month’s war with Russia, calling for a national “conversation” about whether the conflict could have been avoided.

Former parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze’s remarks echoed widespread feelings among Georgians about the war.

An estimated 192,000 people were uprooted in last month’s fighting but 68,000 are already back home, the UN refugee agency said today.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees revised its figure upward from 158,000 people it previously said were displaced.

A US Defence Department team was expected to embark today on a delicate mission to determine Georgia’s military needs after its war with Russia, a show of support that is certain to stoke Moscow’s anger.

Nato’s leader said he will send a delegation to Georgia next week to show the alliance’s support after Russia used “disproportionate force” in attacking the small country.

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