Little progress as Russia-Georgia talks conclude

Negotiating teams from eight parties met in Geneva Thursday for the second and final day of talks this year to discuss security issues and the fate of displaced people following the Russian-Georgian war - but most progress was still incomplete, negotiators said, dpa reported.

The major achievement, US diplomats said, was an agreement, without a timeline, to let aid reach the most vulnerable refugees of the conflict, inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia and in areas close by.

Pierre Morel, the European Union representative, said the talks "took place in a positive spirit" and participants had agreed to focus on practical matters. Some progress on technical issues was made, he stressed.

However, "despite last-minute talks, we were unable to reach an agreement today" on setting up a mechanism to prevent and resolve future armed incidents near or within the breakaway regions, Morel said.

This mechanism had also been discussed in the previous round.

United Nations representative John Verbeke said that while all sides agreed on the need for the mechanism, the details of how it would function remained open.

The sides agreed to resume talks on 17 February for another two-day session.

Besides the EU and the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States sent envoys to the talks. They joined representatives of Russia, Georgia and officials of the breakaway regions for the meetings which began Wednesday with an informal lunch.

The first round had ended without the Russians and Georgians sitting in the same room.

Diplomats, speaking with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa on condition of anonymity due to their place in the negotiations, said they got stuck over two issues, namely sending international observer missions into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognition of the two regions.

During the talks, the representatives of the regions would not allow observer missions into the territory they control, even after Georgia agreed not to take part in the joint missions, diplomats said.

"The European monitoring mission is doing the best it can" but the lack of access to the breakaway regions were problematic, Daniel Fried, a US Assistant Secretary of State, told reporters.

Fried said there were "shooting incidents daily" near the borders of Georgia and the breakaway areas, and blamed "irregular forces" and "gangs."

Russia recognized the regions' independence shortly after the war, saying it was needed for security reasons, and sent its first ambassadors to South Ossetia and Abkhazia earlier this week. The Europeans and Americans have condemned the action.

The Russian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin said his country's troops remained in the areas to "guarantee that the events of August won't recur."

A positive note, US negotiators said, was an agreement by all parties to let humanitarian aid reach all the displaced people in need, including within the breakaway zones, even though they could not confirm a time-frame.

The mediators were pushing for the first teams to arrive before the end of the year.

As part of that agreement, the sides also agreed not to interrupt flows of utilities, such as water and gas, to each other, a contentious issue that goes back even before August.

"Never try to solve any issues with a wave of a wand," said Karasin, commenting on the sluggish progress of the talks, adding later, "the last few steps are the hardest to take."

The UN's mandate to the region, given by the Security Council, will run out two days before the negotiations resume, but Morel said the council would meet again on 9 February to discuss the issue.

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