Tue, Nov 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Defense ministers in EU decide on their rapid reaction forces

THE GUARDIAN , BRUSSELS

EU defense ministers were to give their approval yesterday to the formation of up to 10 rapid reaction forces, known as battlegroups, for deployment in international crisis regions such as Sudan and the Ivory Coast from as early as next year.

The decision, which will be endorsed at a joint meeting with foreign ministers, is seen as a substantial change in Europe's equally vaunted and derided security and defense policy.

Next week the Bosnian peacekeeping mission Sfor, operated by NATO, will be transferred to the EU-controlled Eufor.

With a strength of 7,000, it will be the biggest overseas deployment by combined European forces to date.

The battlegroups will each have 1,500 soldiers and the program is due for completion by 2007.

It is understood that the 25 defense ministers see Africa as the most likely theater for the battlegroups, where they are expected to supplement the peacekeeping and policing missions increasingly undertaken by the African Union (AU).

The AU is sending up to 4,000 soldiers to the Darfur region of Sudan, a significant increase in its force initially protecting the AU representatives trying to monitor the often-broken ceasefire between the Arab Janjaweed militias, backed by government forces, and two rebel forces drawn from black African tribes.

Massacres and rapes continue in the region, where more than 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes and more than 70,000 are estimated to have died. The US has declared the conflict genocidal.

British officials think the battlegroups could also work alongside AU forces in Ivory Coast, where France already has a peacekeeping force and civil war has recently erupted again.

First forces

The first two will be British and French-led forces available in the first half of next year. The Italians promise one in the second half of the year.

The Swedes and Finns are also planning a group in which Norway will take part, even though it does not belong to the EU.

There is a serious debate in Os-lo about whether it is compatible with the Constitution.

It is intended that the battlegroups should have the air transport and other logistical support to be on the ground within 15 days of the EU Council of Ministers deciding to intervene.

British officials point to the success of Operation Artemis, which put up to 2,000 peacekeepers into the Democratic Republic of Congo in a matter of days.

France will draw its force from the Eurocorps, for which it and Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg were to establish a headquarters yesterday.

The Europeans, who will work alongside a 200-strong NATO contingent left behind to ensure US involvement, are expected to act in policing roles and to train the largely disintegrating Bosnian, Croat and Serb armies into a unified multi-ethnic force.

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