TBILISI, Georgia – Russian troops retook a village near the breakaway region of South Ossetia Saturday just hours after withdrawing, Georgia’s Interior Ministry and European Union peace observers said.
The move drew criticism from Georgia, the EU and U.S. Senator John Kerry, who was on a half-day visit to Tbilisi.
Georgian police had already moved into Perevi on Saturday to remove Russian-built roadblocks when Russian troops and helicopters unexpectedly returned, said Shota Utiashvili, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
“They left, and we went in with about 40 people to remove the roadblocks,” he said. “While they were doing this, the Russians deployed a battalion of special forces with helicopters and armor and told the Georgian policemen to get out immediately,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry refused immediate comment and South Ossetian officials could not be immediately reached.
The European monitoring mission, which is observing an EU-brokered cease-fire, quickly issued a statement calling on Russia to pull back once more.
“The renewed Russian military occupation of the Perevi checkpoint, and in addition, the Perevi village, is incompatible with the provisions of the … peace plan,” the statement said.
The mission added that it was unacceptable that Russian troops had stopped EU ambassadors from visiting Perevi.
The Baltic News Service reported that ambassadors from France, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Romania were among those refused entry.
“We saw 20 to 30 soldiers. We don’t know the number of troops inside the village,” Lithuania’s ambassador to Georgia, Mecys Laurinkus, was quoted as saying by the agency.
Laurinkus was quoted as saying the diplomats had to return to Tbilisi after waiting about an hour. Laurinkus said the soldiers had not spoken with them, and that that information about their visit had been received in advance, the news agency reported.
Kerry, meanwhile — in Tbilisi to meet with the government, the opposition and President Mikhail Saakashvili — addressed reporters at the airport before leaving.
“My judgment is that Georgia as a sovereign country needs to be upheld and respected,” Kerry said. “And the agreement that the Russians have signed up to needs to be upheld.”
Perevi has been under Russian control since an August war that saw Russian forces drive deep into Georgia.
EU monitors had welcomed the initial pullback, saying Perevi was clearly outside South Ossetia.
Russia and Georgia severed diplomatic ties after the war, recalling embassy staff. The Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi has opened a Russian section to represent Moscow in Georgia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks in Moscow on the logistics of the agreement Saturday with his Swiss counterpart Micheline Calmy-Rey.
Russia removed several military posts and checkpoints from Georgian territory outside South Ossetia earlier this fall under a French-brokered cease-fire agreement. Georgian police and EU monitors moved in to patrol the area.
Russia recognized South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent nations after the August war and has stationed thousands of troops in the regions — including a swath of South Ossetia that was controlled by Georgia before the conflict.
Georgia’s government and Western nations say the Russian military presence violates the cease-fire agreement, which called for a return to pre-conflict positions.