EC pays for UN troops to guard food aid in Somalia

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MEMBERS of the European Community are paying to send a battalion of Belgian paratroopers to Somalia in what critics fear is the first step towards a common military policy. The move is being justified on the grounds that it is for humanitarian assistance.

The British goverment has apparently dropped its fierce resistance to the notion of using EC- administered Third World aid for funding logistical and military support for relief convoys.

The 515 paratroopers will be armed to the teeth and equipped with attack helicopters and armoured personnel vehicles when deployed in southern Somalia near Kismayu. Their task will be to prevent bandits and local warlords from hijacking the food aid being sent to the country.

The United Nations Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asked Belgium to contribute a battalion for the highly dangerous task of getting food to more than 4.5 million starving Somalis. Mr Boutros-Ghali has previously complained that the Europeans were using their influence in the Security Council to direct UN resources to the 'rich man's war' in the former Yugoslavia, while ignoring Somalia.

The decision to use Community funds to pay for a UN peace-keeping force for the first time ever, was taken by ministers last week. Britain has always resisted efforts by its EC partners to forge a common foreign policy at the UN, because it could open the door to both Britain and France losing their permanent Security Council seats to be replaced by a single seat for the EC presidency.

Given its long-standing opposition to new lines of EC spending, Britain was also loath to set a precedent for military spending from the EC budget. Other countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, see great prospects for the 'burden sharing' initiative. But the deadline for registering objections to last week's decision by EC ambassadors to release the funds passed yesterday. Britain does not seem to have dissented from the endorsement its 11 EC colleagues gave the idea.

Severely indebted, Belgian said it could not pay the estimated dollars 37m ( pounds 18.5m) it would cost to keep the force for a year without help. The UN provides a per diem of only dollars 1,000 per soldier. The EC Commission, co-operating with the Brussels government, said that it might be possible to draw money from the funds allocated to Somalia under the Lome Convention, which provides for development assistance to 69 African, Caribbean and Pacific states. There is plenty available: dollars 140m unused from a credit line that has already expired and a further dollars 175m from the 1990-1995 allocation.

Britain let it be known that it would oppose any precedent-setting move to use development money for military purposes. There was also concern that such an operation could be in violation of the EC's founding treaty. But in last week's ambassadorial meeting there was no support for this view. The EC legal department has considered all the implications of the move and it has been stipulated in writing that the money can be used, but only for upkeep costs.

Money agreed under the Lome Convention is not part of the EC budget; any decision on how it is used is not decided by the Community but by the convention's signatories, all of whom were consulted and gave their assent.

'I think it would have been very difficult for Britain to have convinced her colleagues that the Lome money should be kept warm until there is no one left in Somalia to benefit from it,' said one EC source in an attempt to explain London's change of heart.