HELSINKI (Reuters) - A senior U.S. diplomat said on Friday Russia must stop blocking international monitors from going into Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region to assess reports of human rights abuses.
The monitors have been unable to return to the Moscow-backed region since a war in August between Russia and Georgia, and human rights groups say that in their absence ethnic Georgians are being harassed by the separatists.
“There is, unfortunately, a silence and darkness with respect to the international monitors that has descended on South Ossetia,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told reporters at a security conference in Helsinki.
“The solution is hardly to keep monitors out of South Ossetia ... Russia has an obligation, since it controls this territory, to let in international observers.”
Russia launched a counter-attack in August after Georgian troops tried to retake South Ossetia, a Moscow-backed region that threw off Tbilisi’s rule in the 1990s.
Moscow said it was acting to prevent genocide of the region’s population, but Western governments said its response -- including sending troops beyond South Ossetia and deep into Georgia -- was disproportionate.
The row over Georgia dragged diplomatic relations between Moscow and the United States to a post-Cold War low.
Diplomats at the gathering of the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said differences with Russia were mainly to blame for derailing attempts to agree on a joint declaration setting out the organization’s mission.
The OSCE -- the only major security organization that encompasses the United States, Russia and Europe -- last agreed on a joint declaration in 2002.
“We were close to getting a political declaration, probably closer than we have been for many years, but no cigar this time,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country holds the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship.
Other points of difference with Russia were a major arms control treaty that the Kremlin has threatened to quit, and a lukewarm response to a Russian proposal for a new security pact for Europe, the diplomat said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says the NATO military alliance is a Cold War relic that cements U.S. dominance on the continent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his government would keep up its drive for an alternative.
“There are those who want to preserve everything as it was in the 1990s. In other words, a group of countries that positions itself as the most advanced and civilized, determines and controls the direction of travel for the others,” he said.
Under a ceasefire agreement after Russia’s war with Georgia, Moscow undertook to allow the small group of OSCE military observers stationed in South Ossetia before the fighting to go back, but that has not happened.
Russian officials say they have no objection to the OSCE monitors entering South Ossetia but that the separatist authorities should be consulted -- an obstacle because most states do not recognize them.
Talks will resume on Monday in Moscow on extending the mandate of the OSCE observers in South Ossetia, Stubb said. The current agreement expires at the end of this year.
Greece will take over chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009, followed in 2010 by Kazakhstan, the first ex-Soviet state to lead the organization.
Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Andrew Roche
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