The European Union announced its first military mission outside the continent of Europe yesterday, agreeing to send French, Belgian and British peace-keepers to try to curb the ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The 1,400-strong force, led by France, is expected to begin arriving in the DRC this weekend in what could become a test of the EU's ability to mount military operations. In March, the EU broke ground by taking over peace-keeping duties in Macedonia. But, with 400 troops on the ground, back-up from Nato and a largely stable situation to deal with, the operation has not proved a severe test.
Britain has backed the initiative, underlining the thaw in Anglo-French relations since the diplomatic rift over Iraq. The UK contingent is not expected to consist of more than 80 soldiers and may be geared more towards logistical rather than frontline tasks, although the details of the mission will be decided at a meeting in Paris on 10 June.
The EU force will take over from about 750 hard-pressed United Nations peace-keepers from Uruguay and its mandate will run until 1 September when a larger force from Bangladesh will be in place. All the peace-keeping operations are being run at the behest of the UN.
Codenamed Artemis, the EU mission will be given robust rules of engagement to allow it to defend itself and civilians as it secures the city of Bunia and its airport. Peace-keepers will also be asked to protect aid agencies and tens of thousands of refugees around the city.
France, which has extensive experience intervening in Africa, will supply the commander of the DRC force and about 700 troops. Belgium, Sweden and Ireland may also participate, with non-EU nations such as South Africa, Brazil, Canada and Ethiopia.
The mission to the north-east of the DRC, where tribal fighting over the past month has killed more than 500 people, is a big test of Europe's ambitions to play a more important role on the world stage.
The DRC force will not call on Nato assets and it will not use the alliance's military headquarters in Belgium. France will direct activities from the Centre de Planification et de Conduite des Opérations in Paris. It was keen to make Artemis an EU operation to ease Rwanda's concerns, which has considerable influence in eastern Congo but is suspicious of French motives. Soldiers from the region's former colonial powers could become the focus of hostility.
A spokesman for the European Commission conceded yesterday that risks were high and that "the situation is anything but safe or stable". But Glenys Kinnock, Labour's international development spokeswoman in the European Parliament,said: "This is a positive step with the EU pulling together on an important security issue: the need to avoid the danger of genocide in Congo [DRC].
"It will set an important precedent because we are always being told we are too weak to react in an areas where we are the major donor."
Last month, EU defence ministers declared their rapid-reaction force of 60,000 troops operational for peace-keeping and humanitarian missions.Reuse content