NATO agrees to lend its help in DarfurBERLIN The U.S.-led military alliance, NATO, agreed Wednesday to provide military, logistical and planning support to the African Union as it prepares to assume a greater role in ending the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization opens the way for its first mission to Africa, and was approved despite initial resistance by France and Belgium. As former colonial powers in Africa, both countries had insisted that any support for the African Union should come from the European Union and not from NATO.
"NATO and the EU are entering into a very good example of what I would say is practical and pragmatic cooperation," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary general of NATO, in an interview this week before the decision was made. "Let's not have theology. Let's do it. The African Union came to NATO and the African Union came to the EU. There is no room for competition. There is plenty of work to be done."
The NATO agreement coincides with growing international concern for Africa, particularly over how to reduce poverty and provide debt relief for several of the continent's countries.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who has made the fight against poverty in Africa the main agenda when he chairs the meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations next month in Scotland, held talks in Washington this week with President George W. Bush to reach agreement before the summit meeting.
Wednesday's decision, made a day before NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the role of the alliance in Africa and Afghanistan, could also be an important test case for much closer cooperation between NATO and the EU.
The two organizations, which for months have been vying over which will assist the African Union in Sudan, have finally put aside their rivalry by agreeing to coordinate; they are providing transportation, equipment, training and planning for the ambitious task being prepared by the African Union.
The African Union wants to increase its troops in Darfur from 2,500 to 7,700 to protect the local population. According to the United Nations, at least 180,000 people have died from hunger and fighting. NATO said it hoped to start airlifting troops by July 1.
A NATO spokesman said Wednesday that the NATO and EU missions would be under the African Union leadership.
"The key point is that this will be led by the African Union," said a NATO spokesman, James Appathurai.
Appathurai said that neither NATO nor the EU would send troops. Both organizations said they would keep a low profile since neither Sudan nor the Arab League want Western troops sent to Darfur.
"NATO will have a light touch," said Appathurai.
So far, NATO and the European Union have agreed on the following with the African Union:
The military headquarters will be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where NATO and the EU will provide a skeleton staff of military officers to coordinate the airlift of soldiers to Darfur, as well as providing planning and logistics.
The 7,700 soldiers will be drawn from Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa and Senegal. The U.S. has agreed to provide air transport for troops from Rwanda.
NATO said Rwanda will provide three of the eight battalions that will serve under the African Union.
The size of a battalion ranges from 500 to 800 troops.
France, under a EU flag, will provide transport for the troops from Senegal.
It has not yet been decided who will provide transport for the Nigerians and South Africans.
Canada said it would provide 25 "technical" helicopters for transporting troops, and will also supply 100 armored personnel carriers.
The EU will also have its own military planning cell in Brussels and have a military headquarters at an air base in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where it will coordinate the military contributions from the 25 EU member states.
The EU will assist in police training and building up the civilian side of the African Union forces. It will also provide air observation support. The EU has provided €570 million, or $700 million, of which €445 million has been earmarked for humanitarian assistance including food aid and €129 million to the African Union.
NATO and EU diplomats said that while they hoped to meet the July 1 deadline for starting the first of the airlifts, a lot of work still had to be done in providing bases for the soldiers in Darfur and training the 5,200 extra troops that will be airlifted in phases.