BRUSSELS The European Union will send up to 1,000 soldiers to help stabilize Central African Republic, deploying its first major army operation in six years, EU foreign ministers decided on Monday.
The EU has been spurred into action by communal bloodshed in Central African Republic that led a senior U.N. official to warn last week of a risk of genocide there without a more decisive international response.
Meeting in Brussels, the ministers approved an outline plan to send a battalion-sized force to the violence-torn country but detailed military plans still need to be worked out. It is not yet clear which countries will provide the troops.
Donors at another meeting in Brussels pledged nearly half a billion dollars in humanitarian aid for Central African Republic amid concern among aid officials at the deteriorating situation there.
"This has been for far too long a forgotten crisis, (but it is) forgotten no more," EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva told reporters after the meeting with governments, the United Nations and other international organizations.
EU officials hope the EU force, which will be based around the capital Bangui and its airport, will start arriving in Central African Republic by the end of February.
It will stay for up to six months before handing over to an African Union (AU) force that is building up its strength on the ground.
EU foreign ministers said the aim was to protect civilians and to create conditions for supplying humanitarian aid.
"We do face an emergency there and we need to act," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters.
The plan to send an EU force will please France, which has urged its allies to do more to bolster the 1,600 troops it sent to its former colony last month to stop massacres between Muslim and Christian militias triggered by a March coup.
More than a million people have been displaced by the violence and more than 1,000 people were killed last month alone in Bangui.
The French troops are operating under a U.N. mandate to assist an AU force that is due to increase to 6,000 peacekeepers.
EU officials will seek United Nations Security Council authorization for the EU mission on Thursday.
It is not yet clear which EU countries will contribute troops. Estonia has promised soldiers, and Lithuania, Slovenia, Finland, Belgium, Poland and Sweden are among countries considering sending troops, diplomats say.
Large EU countries such as Britain, Germany and Italy have said they will not send ground troops.
Bildt said the EU should send its rapid reaction force, known as battle groups, to Central African Republic.
Battle groups have been on standby since 2007, rotating between different EU countries, but have never yet been deployed, leading defense experts to question their usefulness.
However, military officials told ministers that the battle groups would not be suitable for Central African Republic because they were equipped to deploy for just 120 days.
The EU has 7,000 staff deployed around the world on 12 civilian missions and four military operations, including combating piracy off Somalia and training the Mali army.
But this will be the EU's first land operation since it sent a force to eastern Chad and northeastern Central African Republic in 2008 as part of regional efforts to deal with the Darfur crisis in Sudan, an EU official said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier; Editing by Tom Heneghan)