EU endorses high-speed observers' mission to Georgia

European Union diplomats Monday rubber-stamped a ceasefire observers' mission to Georgia and agreed to help the country with an extra 500 million euros (714 million dollars) in aid.

But the bloc's foreign ministers, caught between the crossfire of a Russian veto and criticisms from NATO, were forced to concede that their observers would not be deployed to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at least for the time being.

"You can't hope to win everything in one fell swoop, there's always a bit of give and take," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who chaired the meeting in Brussels as current holder of the bloc's rotating presidency.

"Some people feel a bit bitter about certain things, but we have to see this as just a first stage in a process, and this process is very much in its early days," Kouchner added.

Under a deal brokered last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia is to end its occupation of the buffer zones that it has created inside Georgia, but only once the EU sends in sufficient ceasefire observers to replace them.

The EU's observers, a force of at least 200 from more than 20 EU member states, now look certain to be operational by October 1, as had been promised, said Javier Solana, the bloc's foreign policy chief.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik hailed the EU's rapid response, saying: "This is a speed that I have never seen before."

However, the EU decision to limit the mission to Georgia proper will leave the bloc exposed to accusations that it is implicitly recognizing Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

The civilian mission statement signed by EU ministers on Monday makes no specific reference to the two regions, saying merely that the observers' main objective is to "contribute to stability in Georgia and the region."

Kouchner admitted that Monday's deal was "imperfect", but insisted that the French presidency's top priority had been to stop the bloodshed of the August conflict and to prevent Russian forces from reaching Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Solana noted that at their emergency summit of September 1, EU leaders had strongly condemned Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and had vowed to uphold Georgia's territorial integrity.

"That position has not changed," Solana said Monday.

EU diplomats were also forced to respond to comments by NATO's chief, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who in an interview with the Financial Times implicitly criticized the September 8 deal by Sarkozy for failing to prevent Russia from strengthening its military presence in Georgia's separatist regions.

The NATO secretary-general later said his comments were directed solely at Russia.

At their meeting in Brussels, foreign ministers also agreed to help Georgia's economic recovery with an additional 500-million euros Stabilization and Growth Package.

The aid, which would cover the 2008-10 period, would be used to assist Georgia's refugees, assist the financial sector and to build roads and repair damaged buildings.

Ministers also named French diplomat Pierre Morel as the EU's special representative to Georgia. His first task will be to set up and host international talks on the crisis.

Red-faced diplomats were forced to admit that the talks, originally scheduled to start in Geneva on October 15, would have to be postponed because of a long-planned EU summit taking place on the same day. dpa nr bn sc

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