Russia-Georgia talks to start as refugees return

GENEVA (Reuters) - As refugees stream back into Georgian villages following a Russian troop withdrawal, senior officials from the two foes will meet on Wednesday to tackle sensitive military and humanitarian issues.

Russian soldiers on a military vehicle leave a base in the western Georgian city of Senaki August 19, 2008. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Diplomats said the Geneva talks aimed to launch a regular negotiating process to get the enemies together to discuss practical issues following their five-day war in August.

But Georgia said it was seeking “fundamental steps” from Russia and could challenge Moscow’s insistence that representatives from Georgia’s breakaway Russian-backed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia attend the one-day meeting.

Diplomats said that the closed-door talks -- co-chaired by the European Union, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- had been carefully choreographed to avoid a showdown.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the goal was to restore confidence between the two sides and launch a conflict-resolution process.

“I’m encouraged by the general consensus among the parties to resolve this issue through dialogue,” he said.

“The international discussions which take place tomorrow are a beginning,” he told a news briefing after a meeting of the three organizations chairing the talks.

The aim is to win agreement for experts to meet every two weeks in Geneva, diplomats said. They will discuss refugees and other displaced people, and security and stability.

Months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops erupted into war in August when Georgia sent troops and tanks to retake the rebel region of South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in 1991-92. Russia responded with a powerful counter-strike driving the Georgian army out of South Ossetia.

Moscow’s troops then pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks.

Last week Moscow pulled out of buffer zones adjacent to the rebel regions ahead of an October 10 deadline in a ceasefire brokered by France as current president of the EU.

Up to 20,000 people have returned to their villages in the buffer zone adjoining South Ossetia since then, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.


Delegations from Russia, Georgia and its ally the United States will take part in the talks.

After an opening plenary, a technical session will follow, attended by representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- albeit it without fanfare. Russia has drawn international condemnation by recognizing the two Georgian provinces as independent states under its protection.

“Affiliations are taken off the table, it’s just their names. There’ll be nameplates but not saying where they’re from, just their names,” said one diplomat.

But Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria served notice Tbilisi could challenge attendance by “proxy regimes.”

“Russia should meet the terms of the ceasefire agreement in full, withdraw its troops from Georgia, reverse its decision on annexation of two Georgian regions and cease an attempt to challenge Georgia’s sovereignty,” Bokeria told Reuters.

“We are aware of Russia’s attempt to ruin these negotiations with the attendance as legitimate parties of representatives of proxy regimes created by the Russian occupational forces,” he said.

Russia said the two regions had to take part.

“Our position is clear -- without the participation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia it is impossible to work out any agreements to ensure their security. Let’s firmly proceed from this,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that questions about whether Russia had fully complied with ceasefire agreements in Georgia would be discussed.

Washington is concerned that Moscow intends to keep 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- more than twice the number that had been in those two areas before the war started, spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Mark Trevelyan)

Additional reporting by Jonathan Lynn, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Susan Cornwell in Washington