By Ingrid Melander
BRUSSELS, July 23 (Reuters) – The European Union took the first step on Monday towards sending forces to Chad and the Central African Republican to help the United Nations protect refugees trapped in the violent region bordering Darfur.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels asked the bloc’s military staff to start detailed planning for a possible operation to help a U.N. police mission restore security.
"We now have a European initiative," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who had pressed the 27-nation bloc to act, told reporters.
Military staff will start working on a possible year-long deployment of a 1,500 to 3,000-strong force to be sent at the earliest at the end of October, diplomats said.
Eastern Chad and northern Central African Republic have seen a spillover from the 4-year-old conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region, with cross border raids by Sudanese militias and the influx of tens of thousands of refugees.
Refugees and villagers in the remote areas have also been victims of fighting by local rebel and government troops, as well as bandits who have turned the Chad-Sudan-CAR triangle into one of the most dangerous and desperate regions on earth.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno urged the EU last week to deploy highly mobile troops supported by helicopters, to help protect a zone 900 km (560 miles) long by 200-400 km (125-250 miles) wide, including a small part of the Central African Republic.
FRANCE PROVIDES BULK
The United Nations would train and support Chadian police while the European Union would protect civilians, humanitarian workers and the U.N. mission, Guehenno said.
France, a former colonial power in Chad, is expected to provide the bulk of the EU troops. Spain is also considering a contribution, an EU official said.
EU foreign ministers said they needed a U.N. Security Council resolution, with a clearly defined exit strategy, before sending troops.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a news conference the bloc’s priority remained to support sending a hybrid U.N-African Union force in Darfur.
In Darfur, at least 200,000 people are estimated to have died and more than 2 million chased from their homes since fighting flared in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudan government in a conflict over resources.
Eastern Chad has some 230,000 Sudanese refugees and more than 170,000 of its own citizens have been displaced as a consequence of the conflict, with more than 700,000 others affected by violence, the United Nations says.
Kouchner said the EU mission should focus on internally displaced Chadians and also help for reconstruction.
"They are probably the Darfur victims who are the least taken care of, the displaced persons," he said.
The joint U.N.-African Union special representative for Darfur and head of the AU’s Sudan mission, Rodolphe Adada, welcomed the EU move.
"Chad, with all the Sudanese refugees on the ground, with the Chadian citizens facing difficulties, deserves the full attention of the international community," he said in Brussels. (additional reporting by Paul Taylor)
Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Source: MSF International
Source: Red Cross – UK
Source: Plan UK
Source: Concern Worldwide – Ireland
Source: IFRC – Switzerland
Former child soldiers play cards at a temporary rehabilitation centre in Chads capital NDjamena run by the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) July 18, 2007. They are some of the 413 child fighters demobilised from rebel militia FUC in the past few weeks under a deal between U.N. Childrens Fund UNICEF and Chads government. The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the plight of children in conflict on July 23. In Chad, rights workers say all sides have used child fighters in a 19-month, on-off eastern revolt fomented by violence over the border in Sudan’s Darfur. To match feature CHAD-CHILDSOLDIERS/ Picture taken on July 18, 2007.