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Europe

EU Ministers Support "Battle Group" Peacekeeping Plan

EU defense ministers have backed a plan proposed by Germany, France and Britain to set up mobile "battle groups" capable of moving quickly to hotspots beyond EU borders.

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The French-led peacekeeping force in Congo last year is the model for the EU.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Monday that the EU was in favor of setting up several small and mobile "battle groups" under a U.N. umbrella by 2007. The rapid deployment groups could be sent into action whenever and wherever needed.

Solana was speaking after an informal meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels, which saw widespread acceptance of the peacekeeping plan floated by France, Germany and Britain.

Speedy reaction

Under the plan, a permanent pool of 1,500 rapid-reaction troops, similar to the French-led EU peacekeeping force that intervened in Congo last year, would be on call to move worldwide within 15 days to quell a conflict beyond EU boundaries for up to four months before a larger force could arrive. The troops would be split into nine smaller battle groups.

The plan refers specifically to the need for units to be able to deploy quickly to African hotspots and stresses that the groups be able to operate in a variety of hostile terrains, from jungles and deserts to mountains and cities.

Britain, France and some other large EU countries are expected to provide units on their own, while other smaller countries would combine troops. The EU plans to have three such units up and running by next year, though it remains unclear whether all nine battle groups will be in place by 2007.

Irish Defense Minister Michael Smith, who chaired the meeting said, "There was a very, very positive reaction to the proposal." He underlined the importance of a quick response from the EU in times of crisis. "Rapid response, being able to engage much earlier, is … essential."

Solana, however, said the EU also needed to speed up its political response to crises. "We have to have a rapid system of decision-making and rapid planning," he told a news conference after the meeting.

Closer defense ties between EU's "big three"

The battle group plan signals closer defense cooperation between Germany, France and Britain after a period of strained relations over the Iraq war when Britain backed the U.S.-led invasion.

Ties between the three further worsened when Paris and Berlin pushed plans for a separate EU military headquarters, a move that London and Washington interpreted as a threat to NATO.

However, Britain has since softened its position and in a compromise reached last year, the EU's "big three" agreed to set up a smaller planning cell, which they insist will be used to coordinate EU military missions, without undermining NATO's role.

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