(photo credit: AP)
European Union foreign ministers agreed to consider sending a mission to monitor a fragile peace deal between Russia and Georgia - but were divided Wednesday over whether to punish Moscow for taking military action against its ex-Soviet neighbor.
The emergency meeting in Brussels highlighted a rift within the 27-nation bloc between former Soviet satellite nations wanting tough action against Russia and western European members warning against antagonizing Moscow.
Georgia's foreign minister made an impassioned appeal for the Europeans to send a mission to the breakaway province of South Ossetia, saying Russia was violating a cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to pull back its troops.
"Europe has to get engaged physically on the ground and Europe has to stop that from happening," Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said.
The foreign minister of France, which currently holds the EU presidency, said Europe cannot hesitate to help abate the bloodshed that broke out last week.
"The European Union cannot be indifferent to this war, these massacres on our doorstep," Bernard Kouchner said.
But he said it was too early to discuss the details of the EU's expanded role and suggested the bloc likely will send an unarmed mission to back monitors already deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Russia calls its own troops in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkazia peacekeepers and has opposed replacing them with European or other international forces. But Kouchner said Moscow has indicated it could accept more observers.
Tkeshelashvili also said she spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about setting up a humanitarian corridor to allow ethnic Georgians to leave South Ossetia safely.
But she asked the EU to freeze its "strategic partnership" talks with Russia - a move many European countries are reluctant to make because they are dependent on Russian oil and gas.
EU ministers agreed to discuss the bloc's relationship with Russia next month. "The European Union will want to consider how it proceeds with the partnership and cooperation agreement," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said.
Germany's foreign minister warned against isolating Russia.
"It just doesn't seem to me to be very smart in such a time of crisis to decide whether we should revert to the previous situation," Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
But former Eastern bloc nations such as Poland and Latvia are urging a hard line against Russia and want Georgia put on a path to NATO membership.
Pressured by Russia, NATO leaders backed away in April from offering Georgia and Ukraine a roadmap toward membership. NATO foreign ministers are to meet next Tuesday to discuss the crisis.
Some warned that the indecision could be costly.
"So far we all have lost," former Polish President and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"Russia lost because it infuriated the whole world and seems to be going back to its old methods," Walesa said. "Europe ... has shown some hectic action and an inability to be organized, and the United States was proven helpless and inefficient."
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