NATO defence ministers open talks on Darfur, Afghanistan

Brussels (dpa) - NATO defence ministers opened day-long talks Thursday expected to focus on the alliance's decision to provide air transport to African Union troops in Darfur and help for upcoming elections in Afghanistan.

The 26-nation alliance agreed this week to coordinate the African strategic airlift operation with the European Union which has also vowed to help transport African troops to Darfur.

Coordination between the two organizations will take place through a special office under African Union auspices to be set up up in Addis Ababa, NATO officials said.

Attending the NATO meeting Thursday, German Defence Minister Peter Struck ruled out any rivalries in Darfur between the alliance and the E.U.

Germany had already said it was ready to fly African soldiers to Darfur and provide equipment such as electricity generators, Struck told reporters.

Asked whether Berlin would be acting through NATO or the E.U., Struck said just how the help was given to the African Union was not important.

"The discussion is superfluous. One has to agree to help ... how this is coordinated and who is in charge is of secondary importance,'' he insisted.

Struck also urged United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to ensure that the Sudanese government did not obstruct the deployment of a larger African Union force in Darfur.

It was unacceptable that soldiers were being given only a four week-travel visa, he said.

Struck reaffirmed Germany's readiness to take over responsibility for NATO forces in the entire northern region of Afghanistan, saying he was hoping for a parliamentary go-ahead for more German troops for the country.

The current number of German troops in Afghanistan is restricted to 2,250.

NATO ministers are expected to discuss Afghan President Hamid Karzai's demands that the alliance provide support for upcoming parliamentary elections in his country in autumn.

Officials said NATO was ready to provide three additional battalions - representing about 2,200 troops - to help stabilize Afghanistan ahead of the upcoming polls. dpa si wjh


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