A column of Russian armored vehicles moves on a road leading from Zugdidi to Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, Georgia, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. Hundreds of Russian forces packed up and withdrew from positions Saturday in western Georgia, and a Georgian official said Russia had met a deadline for a partial pullout a month after the war between the two former Soviet republics. (AP Photo/Georgy Abdaladze)
GORI, Georgia - European Union monitors began patrolling Georgian territory Wednesday under a French-brokered peace deal, and Russian troops allowed some monitors into a buffer zone around South Ossetia despite insisting earlier they would be blocked.
A Russian peacekeeping statement Tuesday saying monitors would not be allowed on Georgian territory around the separatist region of South Ossetia had raised concern that Moscow was stalling on withdrawing its troops from Georgia as it promised to do after its August war with Georgia.
But when EU observers arrived Wednesday at Russian checkpoints near the Georgian villages of Karaleti and Kvenatkotsa, at the perimeter of Russia's so-called "security zone" on Georgian territory, Russians quickly let them move into the area.
The Russian soldiers didn't allow reporters to follow the observers into the buffer zone near Kvenatkotsa, but let Georgian civilians pass after examining their vehicles.
"The situation is very calm," Ivan Kukushkin, a Russian officer in charge of the checkpoint said with a smile.
EU mission head Hansjoerg Haber told reporters the Russian military had earlier warned the EU monitors from entering the buffer zone, citing concerns for their security.
"We received different signals," Haber told reporters. "We want to clarify these differences in the coming hours."
Another group of EU monitors visited the village of Odisi in a different sector just outside South Ossetia.
Russia and Georgia agreed to the EU observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan following the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and dug in on other territory in Georgia.
As part of the deal, Moscow agreed to withdraw its forces completely from areas outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the EU monitors' deployment Wednesday — including from a roughly 4-mile (7-kilometer) buffer zone they have created southward from South Ossetia.
"The Russians gave us plans for dismantling their (check)points but didn't say when," Haber told reporters.
At the Russian checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kvenatkotsa, an armored personnel carrier was parked up the hill near camouflaged tents and there was no sign of any preparations for a Russian troop pullback.
Russia still plans to keep around 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has refused to allow EU monitors inside the regions themselves.
"Show the flag, be friendly, show confidence," Haber told monitors in Basaleti, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Some 300 EU observers will be based in four semi-permanent locations, including the central city of Gori near South Ossetia and the Black Sea port of Poti, key targets of Russian forces.
In Gori, another group of EU monitors boarded their light armored vehicles to head toward the buffer zone outside South Ossetia.
One observer, Adam Glinsky, a 43-year old Polish policeman, downplayed Russia's warning not to enter the buffer zone. "It's only yesterday's opinion, hopefully tomorrow it will be different," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who visited Georgia on Tuesday, expressed optimism that Moscow would pull its troops back in the promised time frame.
"I am optimistic that all parties will comply with the agreement that was signed," Solana said. "We hope very much and we are sure that before Oct. 10 that part of the mission will be completed."
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili skirted questions about EU access at a news conference Tuesday. He stressed that Georgia wants a complete Russian withdrawal.
"We will not be happy until the last Russian soldier gets out of my country," he told a news conference with Solana.
The war began Aug. 7 when Georgian troops launched an offensive to regain control of South Ossetia. Russia sent troops, which quickly routed the Georgian military and pushed deep into Georgia.
Russia's continued occupation of Georgian territory and its subsequent recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has drawn strong condemnation from the West, which urged Moscow to respect Georgia's sovereignty.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insisted Wednesday that the military action was necessary to repel the Georgian aggression and protect Russian citizens and peacekeepers in the region.
"We have done a right thing," Medvedev said in the Kremlin after giving medals to soldiers who fought in the war. "We have shown that Russia can protect its citizens, that all other nations must reckon with it."