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European arm of Nato seeks a wider reach

The Western European Union - the European arm of Nato - wants to be able to "mount and control peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and crisis management" by the end of the year, Foreign Office officials said yesterday.

Foreign and defence ministers from the 10 full members of the WEU and 17 other European countries will meet at Birmingham's International Convention Centre next week. But although the end of the year coincides with the end of the current mandate for the Nato-led peace implementation force (I-For) in Bosnia, officials said there was absolutely no way the WEU could take on an operation of that magnitude - or even a smaller "post I-For" operation in Bosnia.

The meeting will hear how, under the British presidency, the WEU has taken "concrete steps" towards being able to conduct operations at the lower levels of conflict.

Diplomatic sources yesterday said this part of the spectrum was ill-defined but believed the WEU would be able to conduct operations more ambitious than those seen so far - for example, the naval blockade in the Adriatic - but still well short of a big military operation like I-For, which involves 60,000 troops.

The "concrete steps" so far include a security agreement between WEU and Nato which will make it possible for classified information to pass between the headquarters of the two organisations. This is seen as vital to enable the WEU to use Nato forces.

A situation centre has been set up at the WEU headquarters in Brussels to control and monitor operations. Sources yesterday said the technology for command, control and communications would all be in place by the end of the year. There has also been an agreement on "strategic airlift" known as Eurolift, to ensure the WEU can get forces to where they are needed.

"It's the kind of thing that has to be got right if the vision we have of European defence policy is to be realised," a Foreign Office official said.

"There may well be tasks in the field of peacekeeping, crisis management and huminatarian operations which are not appropriate for Nato. They will be European but the assets will be drawn from Nato."

The WEU can draw on Nato communications and resources, but without fully involving the Atlantic Alliance. The main means of doing this is to be the Combined Joint Task Force concept. Nato nations are expected to finalise the details of CJTS at the Nato summit in Berlin on 3 June.