BRUSSELS European Union governments are expected to pledge soldiers and equipment on Friday allowing the EU to launch its delayed peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic, the EU's top military officer said.
The EU has drawn up plans to send 800 to 1,000 soldiers to join 6,000 African and 2,000 French troops struggling to stop a conflict that erupted after the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power a year ago in the majority Christian state.
The mission has been held up by the failure of European governments to provide key soldiers and equipment.
Tensions over the Ukraine have led some east European states to hesitate after earlier committing troops to the mission.
But French General Patrick de Rousiers, chairman of the EU Military Committee, said on Thursday he was optimistic member states would offer the needed soldiers and equipment at a "force generation" conference on Friday.
He said he had indications that Major-General Philippe Ponties, the French commander of the EU's planned Central African Republic force, would "get what is needed so as to launch the operation".
"I am very optimistic ... that General Ponties will be able to say to the ambassadors of the EU that he has the (military) assets to launch. We need to launch this operation. There is an urgent need on the ground," he told Reuters, speaking on the sidelines of the European Defence Agency's annual conference.
"This is a profound humanitarian crisis. People are getting slaughtered there. So it is worthwhile that we come and help ... The risks are there, but the 28 European nations have said 'yes we will deploy', so it will happen," he said.
De Rousiers declined to say which countries would offer the missing troops and equipment.
The African Union on Tuesday branded militia targeting Muslims in Central African Republic "terrorists" and said they would be treated as enemy combatants, a day after a Congolese peacekeeper was killed.
The EU already has some people in Central African Republic preparing the mission and expected to deploy its force by the end of April, de Rousiers said.
He said the EU's force of 800 to 1,000 soldiers would be built up gradually. After the violent events in Central African Republic, "you can't deploy 800 or 1,000 soldiers like this in a week ... it wouldn't work," he said.
The goal of the EU force will be to provide security in the capital Bangui and at Bangui airport, where around 70,000 people who have fled the violence are living in dire conditions.
France has urged its EU partners to do more to help the operation, saying the EU must not shirk its responsibilities for international security.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)