Nato favours plan for troops to focus on aid

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The Independent Online

Nato forces in the US-led coalition against terrorism may concentrate on aid efforts in Afghanistan under plans being discussed in Brussels.

With many European countries reluctant in to get involved in hostilities, focusing on emergency supplies is seen as a compromise solution more likely to find favour with Nato's member states.

Lord Robertson, the secretary general, is believed to be in firmly in favour of the plan, and hardly any voices have been raised against it, diplomatic and defence sources said.

One proposal being considered is for Nato aircraft to carry food, medicine and provisions for shelter to a country neighbouring Afghanistan, which Nato troops will then transfer into the country.

They might also take over and expand an American project to fly in supplies to Turkmenistan on C-17 aircraft, from an Italian air base in Pisa.

Although no plans have yet been finalised by the organisation's 19 member states, operations could be started fairly quickly once the decision is made, military officials said.

The British government has long been in favour of a humanitarian mission, and the Ministry of Defence has drawn up contingency plans.

Yesterday, Italy became the latest Nato member to offer forces for Afghanistan. About 2,700 service personnel, including an armoured regiment, as well as the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, will be sent to join Operation Enduring Freedom.

But although the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is eager to be part of the US and British military team and has been angling for an invitation, reservations about military action have been expressed by the Italian public.

The country's Defence Minister, Antonio Marino, has admitted that the cost to the country could be more than £1bn. More than 240 sports personalities, including international footballers and Formula One racing drivers, signed a petition yesterday asking for a halt to the bombing, and for the provision of aid.

Although the German government has agreed to an American request for 3,900 troops, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is worried about a public backlash, stressed that apart from 100 commandos none of the troops would be engaged in hostilities.

France has repeatedly stated that it is prepared to send special forces. But its President, Jacques Chirac, has also said that his government will need specific details of what their mission will be and of the overall gameplan. The French have also been unable to find a base for their warplanes around Afghanistan.

Channelling Nato's efforts into humanitarian projects may also suit some in Washington. The Pentagon has never been keen on expanding military forces beyond Britain, Canada, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. However, signs of flagging support for US military action in many of the "friendly" nations has prompted America to seek to expand the coalition.

But its military commanders are still limiting decision-making to Washington and London, and there are indications that even Britain is not entirely in the loop.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has continued to worsen. Aid agencies are finding that even their Afghan workers, who continued working when foreign nationals pulled out, are finding it too dangerous in many areas.

Although the UN's World Food Programme is sending in about 2,000 tonnes of food a week, this is nothing like sufficient. UN agencies warned five weeks ago that 50,000 tonnes a month would be needed to avoid widespread starvation.