Fighting in new territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo has snuffed out hopes of a swift end to the conflict, but it was too early to send peacekeeping troops into the region, EU foreign ministers said Monday.
Thousands have fled new fighting in eastern DR Congo as the humanitarian crisis widens
The worsening crisis in eastern parts of DR Congo has deepened fears the 17,000-strong UN force there is incapable of quelling fierce fighting between pro-government militias and forces under rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda.
"Sadly the situation is in decline," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency. "The humanitarian situation is more than disastrous, difficult to accept."
"Will the UN forces be able to deal with (the crisis)? I don't know," Kouchner added as he arrived to chair a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels.
The EU meeting followed fresh fighting in DR Congo on Sunday, forcing thousands of people to flee bordering Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu provinces.
No EU involvement, yet
Laurent Nkunda has called for direct dialog with DR Congo's president
But European ministers remained adamant the time was not right to send EU peacekeeping troops into eastern DR Congo.
German Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung insisted it was "out of the question for the moment," while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted the UN needed more time to weight up the situation.
"We should wait for the assessment by the UN investigator … and then it will be for every country of the world to consider its own position," Miliband said.
Southern African nations, meanwhile, said they were prepared to send peacekeepers into the conflict zone to stem a humanitarian crisis that has been escalating since fighting erupted in August. An estimated 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes as a result.
Recreational and commercial shipping off Somalia has been severely affected by piracy there
But the conflict in DR Congo was not the only focus at the Brussels meeting, with EU ministers also signing off on a plan to send a fleet of frigates and spotter aircraft to waters off Somalia to combat rampant piracy there.
Tagged "Operation Atalanta," the force will comprise at least seven ships, including three frigates, a supply vessel and surveillance aircraft to be deployed to waters around the Horn of Africa around mid-December, officials said.
The mission will be commanded from the British naval base of Northwood, north of London, and has been tasked with protecting merchant ships and aiding vessels bound for the Somali port of Mogadishu.
"Some of the food (aid) that will have to go to Somalia will be protected by the mission," the EU's top diplomat, Javier Solana, said.
International attention has focused sharply on piracy in waters off Somalia in recent months following a spate of attacks and kidnappings and the capture of a Ukrainian ship laden with heavy weaponry.
The International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group, estimated that Somali pirates were responsible for around one-third of all reported attacks on ships.
Appeal to China
The EU called for the release of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
EU ministers also used Monday’s meeting to urge China to work more closely with the 27-nation bloc to boost development and stability in Africa.
Both the EU and China play a growing role in Africa, and "in this new context, it would seem advantageous to coordinate the EU's and China's efforts more closely around priorities which reflect Africa's needs," a statement from the ministers said.
"Particular attention should be given to cooperation in the area of peace and security," it said.
Over the last 18 months, EU officials have expressed increasing concern at China's rapprochement with African states such as Sudan and Angola, warning that this undermines European attempts to build democracy and stability across the continent.
The Brussels meeting also looked at the faltering progress of democracy in Myanmar.European ministers said the EU was ready to toughen sanctions on the isolated country’s military junta unless it showed signs of a genuine transition to democracy.