European peace move

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, writes Christopher Bellamy.

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 no way the WEU could take on an operation of that magnitude - or even a smaller "post I-For" operation.

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 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 an agreement between WEU and Nato which will make it possible for classified information to pass between the two organisations' headquarters. This is seen as vital to enable the WEU to use Nato forces.

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