Britain prepares to send 3,000 troops into Darfur

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Tony Blair has ordered military chiefs to prepare to send British troops to intervene in Sudan in the New Year.

Tony Blair has ordered military chiefs to prepare to send British troops to intervene in Sudan in the New Year.

The Prime Minister has waved aside concerns that the Army is already too committed in Iraq and Afghanistan to make a significant contribution to a peace-keeping mission in Africa.

Chiefs of staff have been told to prepare plans to send up to 3,000 troops to the troubled Darfur region amid concern that the humanitarian crisis will dramatically worsen. The deployment will be discussed early next month at a meeting with senior military officials. "When you decide to make an intervention you have got to be able to move fast," a minister told The Independent on Sunday.

Troops would be sent as part of the new European Union Rapid Reaction Force which Mr Blair has said he wants to be operational "as soon as possible in 2005". He added during a visit to Ethiopia in October that Africa should be the "top priority" for the new force. Any deployment to Africa would stretch the military to its limits. Britain already has more than 40,000 service personnel, around a fifth of its total, serving abroad.

Despite warnings of overstretch, Mr Blair is said to be concerned that Britain could be upstaged by France in any humanitarian effort in Sudan and has asked for an assurance from the military that it could lead a mission if asked.

So far Western government have resisted calls to mount a military intervention to alleviate the Sudanese crisis, which is estimated to have already led to 70,000 deaths.

There is a growing acceptance that a tiny African Union peace-keeping force is failing to prevent the conflict between the Arab-dominated Khartoum government and African Muslim rebel forces in Darfur, however.

Save the Children pulled out last week after four staff were killed in attacks on clearly marked charity convoys. Its decision leaves up to 250,000 people being denied the food and medicine the charity supplied. Today we report a number of other agencies are also considering withdrawal.

Plans have been prepared at the UK's Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, Middlesex, for a mission to alleviate the worsening crisis. General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, said in August that the Army could find a brigade of troops for a humanitarian mission. However, logistics experts say that moving and supplying this size of force would be difficult.

But senior military figures now expect Darfur to be the first major test for the EU Rapid Reaction Force, if it is sanctioned by the UN or African Union. From 1 January British forces begin major command exercises with France to prepare for missions.

If British troops are sent, the most likely candidates are the Marines' 3 Commando Brigade in Plymouth or 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Army, now at Colchester. There could be two battlegroups, of about 850 to 1,000.