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EU defence chiefs meet to study Congo force

Written by: Staff

INNSBRUCK, Austria, Mar 6: European Union defence ministers meet in Austria today to study plans for a European contingent to help safeguard elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo later this year.

A number of EU nations, including France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Belgium, have said they would be willing to support the mission. But it remains unclear how many troops the bloc would be able to raise for the potentially risky operation.

''It is hoped that some nations will be more specific in what they can offer,'' said one EU diplomat ahead of the two-day talks in Innsbruck.

The United Nations has asked the EU for around 800 troops to help protect Congo's first free elections since independence from Belgium in 1961. Ideally the forced would be deployed on the ground in Congo for the elections, scheduled for June.

However, an EU fact-finding mission earlier this year concluded that it might be sufficient to have most troops on standby outside the country, ready to deploy if trouble erupted.

Another unresolved issue is who would lead the force.

Germany is under pressure from other EU nations to step forward but has proven reluctant so far, diplomats said.

The Innsbruck meeting will also hear proposals for a common EU fund on defence research, aimed at narrowing the burgeoning lead of the United States in high-tech military equipment.

France is a firm backer of the fund, proposed last month by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The fund would be an almost unprecedented example of EU countries pooling their jealously guarded national military budgets.

But Britain, which with France is the biggest spender on defence research in the bloc, is less keen, arguing against creating a new centralised budget for research. It favours continuing to pick specific projects it deems ripe for cross-border cooperation.

Britain and France spend around 700 million euros (842 million dollars) a year on defence research and technology out of an EU total of some 2 billion euros. Other states are far behind.

Washington spends five times more on such research than all EU states put together.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie is also due at the meeting to present counterparts with a proposal under which the EU would expand its training for African troops.

Britain will present options for how the EU can overcome shortfalls in the long-range airlift needed to transport troops and equipment around the globe.


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