Georgia tops Sarkozy mission

September 8, 2008 12:00 am

, MOSCOW, September 8 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy will ramp up the international pressure on Russia to withdraw more troops from Georgia as he visits Moscow and Tbilisi on Monday to shore up a fragile peace deal.

France holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and it was Sarkozy who brokered the August 12 accord that officially brought an end to Russia and Georgia’s five-day war over South Ossetia.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has come under fire for not honouring the terms of the truce, in particular from the United States which is not as reliant as some European nations on Russian oil and gas supplies.

Moscow argues that its remaining presence in Georgia, thought to be a few thousand troops, is in line with an agreement that foresaw "additional security measures" by Russia in the conflict zone.

Georgia, whose army was routed by the Russians in a five-day conflict after launching an ill-fated campaign to regain control of the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, views the leftover troops as an occupying force.

Sarkozy will meet Medvedev at his residence near Moscow at 1000 GMT, accompanied by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The three will later travel to Tbilisi for afternoon talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with whom Russia has refused direct talks since the conflict.

French officials say they will press for: the deployment of an EU observer mission in Georgia; a timetable for Russia’s withdrawal; and international talks on the future of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.

An emergency EU summit on September 1 gave an order for EU negotiators to seek full application of the ceasefire accord and EU foreign ministers meeting in France last week confirmed plans for an EU observer mission to Georgia.

Russia says it will only pull its troops out of areas surrounding the rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia once international controls, including observers and police, are in place to prevent another Georgian attack.

It also wants Georgia to sign a non-aggression pact and insists that Georgian troops have not yet returned to their own bases, one of the six terms of the ceasefire agreement.

Western countries have said Russia is breach of the accord, urging Moscow to pull out immediately, and have strongly condemned Medvedev’s move on August 26 to unilaterally recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"I am hopeful that the French president’s visit to Moscow will clarify the six-point plan," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday.

"We, as the European Union, want to continue contacts (with Moscow) at the same time it’s not possible that a six-point plan that we have developed together is not respected," she said.

The conflict has plunged relations between Russia and the West to a tense post-Cold War low, with an angry war of words developing between Russia and the United States following US Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to the region.

Cheney has accused Russia of using "brutality" and trying to redraw the map of Georgia. Russia has alleged US involvement in Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia and accused Washington of re-arming Georgia since the conflict.

Russian troops surged into Georgia on August 8 with Moscow arguing that they were protecting tens of thousands of residents there who have been granted Russian citizenship since the 1991 collapse of the USSR.

Hundreds of people on both sides are estimated to have been killed in the conflict, which wrought extensive destruction on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. Tens of thousands have also been forced to flee their homes.


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