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Russia effectively ends UN mission in Georgia

United Nations — Russia Monday vetoed an extension of the mandate of the UN mission in Georgia, effectively ending its activities, citing opposition to Georgian sovereignty over the rebel enclave of Abkhazia.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin cast his veto during a Security Council vote on a draft sponsored by Western countries which called for a two-week extension of the mandate and indirectly reaffirmed the council’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Ten of the council’s 15 members voted in favour while four — China, Libya, Uganda and Vietnam — abstained.

With the Russian veto, the UN mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) ends at midnight (0400 GMT Tuesday). The mission has been tasked with monitoring the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia.

The force, which currently fields 131 military observers and 20 policemen, was created in 1993 to oversee a ceasefire accord between the Georgian government and Abkhaz separatist authorities.

The envoys of Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Croatia all voiced regret over the Russian veto and reaffirmed their commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

"There was one issue on which we could not compromise and that is the territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders," Germany’s UN envoy Thomas Matussek said on behalf of the so-called Group of Friends of Georgia — Britain, Croatia, Germany, France and the United States.

The draft sponsored by Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Turkey, Britain and the United States was meant to extend the status quo for two weeks to allow more time for negotiations with Russia over the fate of the mission and a new security regime for Abkhazia.

Explaining the reason for his veto, Churkin said the text was "clearly unacceptable" as it would be "denying the existence of Abkhazia as a state."

He said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "put an end to the sovereignty of his own country" over Abkhazia by sending his troops into breakaway South Ossetia last August.

Georgia’s UN envoy Alexanser Lomaya slammed the Russian veto. But he said his country looked forward to cooperating very closely with the EU monitoring mission on the ground in Georgia to ensure that truce accords brokered by the French presidency of the European Union last year "are honoured and implemented."

In a statement, UN chief Ban Ki-moon regretted that the "Security Council has been unable to reach agreement on the basis of a package of practical and realistic proposals he submitted (last month) to the Council aimed at contributing to a stabilization of the situation on the ground.

France’s UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert voiced hope that "all parties that have forces on the ground, including Russia, will exert maximum restraint, will abide by commitments" signed with the EU last year "and do what is necessary to protect the civilian population."

Speaking before the vote, Britain’s deputy UN ambassador Philip Parham said that once the UN mission ceased to exist, the EU would have to look at how its monitoring mission on the ground in Georgia "will help ensure there is not a return to conflict."

In February the Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the UN mission for four months pending security arrangements in Abkhazia to be worked out by Moscow and Tbilisi.

And for the past three weeks, the Group of Friends of Georgia had been trying to negotiate a way out of the impasse in the wake of last year’s Georgia-Russia conflict and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

The Russian delegation earlier put forward its own proposal for a United Nations Stabilization Mission (UNSMIS) — a name proposed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon — for "an initial period terminating on December 2009."

Under the Russian proposal based on Ban’s report, security zones and restricted zones would be set up 12 kilometres (seven miles) on each side of the border between Georgia and Abkhazia.

No armed forces or military equipment would be allowed in the security zones, which would be patrolled by no more than 800 security personnel equipped with up to 15 armoured personnel carriers with standard weapons.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry warned ahead of the vote that "the responsibility for wrapping up the UN presence in Transcaucasus will rest entirely with our partners."

Russia sent troops deep into Georgia in August 2008 to beat back a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia, a territory which had received extensive backing from Moscow for years.

Russian forces later withdrew to within the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under a ceasefire brokered and monitored by the EU.

Moscow recognized the two regions as independent, despite protests from the West and from Georgia itself.

Gerard Aziakou/AFP/Expatica