U.N. monitors leaving Georgia as OSCE deadline passes

TBILISI Tue Jun 30, 2009 11:34am BST

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TBILISI (Reuters) - United Nations monitors began pulling out of Georgia Tuesday, testing security almost a year since the former Soviet republic's war with Russia.

A deadline for the OSCE to withdraw also passes Tuesday after negotiations with Russia broke down in May. The mission conducted its last patrol 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 Organisation 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.

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

A U.N. official who declined to be named confirmed around 20 monitors were leaving 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 Tbilisi's rule in wars in the early 1990s with 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 cease-fire.

OIL AND GAS TRANSIT

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.

"Unfortunately I think it is possible," the Finnish diplomat told Reuters. "The security situation along the administrative border line in unstable and we witness all kinds of incidents."

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."

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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