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U.N. monitors leave Georgia, OSCE mission shuts

TBILISI (Reuters) - United Nations monitors began pulling out of Georgia on Tuesday and the OSCE officially closed its observer mission, testing security almost a year since the former Soviet republic’s war with Russia.

An UN soldier takes picture in his armoured vehicle parked on the roadside as a Russian military convoy travels on its way on a main road leading to the Georgian city of Zugdidi, which is about 350 km (220 miles) away from Georgia's capital Tbilisi, August 13, 2008. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

A deadline for the OSCE to withdraw passed on Tuesday after negotiations with Russia broke down in May. The mission conducted its last patrol on Friday, and has already left its hillside headquarters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Russia rejected extending the mandates of some 130 U.N. monitors in breakaway Abkhazia and 20 monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who operated in rebel South Ossetia until last August’s war.

Moscow recognized the territories as independent states after crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war. Russia demanded separate monitoring missions for the regions, which Georgia said would violate its sovereignty.

Greek Foreign Minister and OSCE chair Dora Bakoyanni lamented the lack of consensus.

“As a result, one of the largest on-the-ground missions of the OSCE in the region was led to an end -- despite the clear need, recognized by many states taking part in it, for the organization to be present in order to contribute toward security and stability in the region.”

In Abkhazia on Monday, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet said U.N. military and police monitors would start leaving on Tuesday and complete the withdrawal by July 15, a month after Russia vetoed a new mandate, Abkhaz media reported.


A U.N. official who declined to be named confirmed around 20 monitors were leaving on Tuesday. “We’re moving them out in batches,” he said. Full closure and the departure of several hundred civilian staff will take several more months.

The U.N. and OSCE missions deployed after Abkhazia and South Ossetia threw off Georgia’s rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Their departure leaves the European Union alone with some 225 unarmed monitors deployed after last year’s war to monitor a fragile ceasefire.

The EU mission, however, has been denied access to either South Ossetia or Abkhazia and currently conducts patrols only as far as the de facto borders.

Analysts warn the mission has neither the access nor the means to prevent frequent incidents -- gunfire and bomb blasts -- escalating into full-blown clashes in an important transit region for oil and gas to the West.

Russia has kept thousands of soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the war. Departing OSCE mission head Terhi Hakala warned last week of the risk of fresh conflict.

Tensions are again running high, with Russia this week conducting annual large-scale military exercises across parts of its southern regions bordering Georgia, condemned by Tbilisi as “pure provocation.”

Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou in Athens, editing by Mark Trevelyan