EU defence ministers meet as monitoring mission begins in Georgia
European Union defence ministers were due to meet in the French coastal town of Deauville on Wednesday as the bloc's observers began a delicate ceasefire monitoring mission in Georgia, reported dpa. Some 350 observers from 22 EU countries are tasked with ensuring that Russian troops withdraw to the positions they held prior to the August conflict, as agreed in a September 8 peace deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Initial reports out of the South Caucasus indicated that the observers were having some difficulties being allowed into the buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moreover, Russia has said that it will prevent the EU monitors from entering the two separatist enclaves, which it now controls, sparking concern in Brussels that the mission will end up providing de facto recognition of the two regions as independent states. In Deauville, defence ministers were due to be briefed about the mission by the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. While formally civilian in nature, the mission has an important military component in the form of French gendarmes and Italian carabinieri. The informal meeting was taking place in Normandy, just 20 kilometres away from the D-Day beaches where US, British and Canadian forces landed on June 6, 1944 in a drive to liberate Europe from the Nazi occupation of World War II. In his invitation letter to Deauville, French Defence Minister Herve Morin has called on colleagues to come up with detailed plans showing how member states can improve the bloc's military capabilities at a time in which it is being confronted with a "growing number of operations". These include the EUFOR mission in Chad, which with 3,700 soldiers is the bloc's largest ever military mission abroad, and the Althea mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Having achieved its objective of stabilizing the Balkan nation, ministers were now due to discuss the mission's future, with Spain indicating ahead of the meeting that it would ask to withdraw its 320 soldiers operating in Bosnia. Other topics on the agenda of the two-day ministerial meeting include plans for a European fleet to protect ships from pirates operating off the Somalia coast, and an exchange programme for EU officers similar to the bloc's successful Erasmus programme for university students.