Chad + 1 more

EU commanders give green light to Chad mission

By Mark John

BRUSSELS, Jan 11 (Reuters) - European Union military commanders gave the green light to a long-delayed peacekeeping mission to eastern Chad on Friday after France, Belgium and Poland plugged shortfalls in equipment such as helicopters.

The operation to protect civilians and aid workers caught up in the violence in neighbouring Darfur was due to have started last October to be ready for any surge in fighting after the end of the rainy season.

EU officials said the first of 3,500-plus troops would likely arrive in February. However they said more equipment and time would be needed for the full deployment of the force.

"While the process has taken longer than anticipated, it has reached a successful conclusion in the end," Irish Defence Minister Willie O'Dea said in a statement, adding that the first Irish troops were expected on the ground early in February.

There was no breakdown on the new offers made at a meeting in Brussels but an EU diplomat said commanders now calculated they had enough helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to begin.

However O'Dea told Irish public broadcaster RTE additional equipment was still needed to allow what he described as a full deployment of 4,000 troops.

"There will be some further equipment needed down the line. But I am quite confident that will be forthcoming," he said.

The operation will be led by Irish Lieutenant-General Patrick Nash, while former colonial power France is expected to provide more than half the troops. A further 13 EU states have pledged to provide troops, the diplomat said.

The Darfur conflict has taken some 200,000 lives and driven more than 2 million from their homes since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.

The mission is expected to be the toughest undertaken by the bloc. Commanders have struggled to cajole countries to provide costly helicopters needed in the harsh terrain of eastern Chad and the Central African Republic, where it will also deploy.

France has accused EU partners of being slow to come forward and even made overtures to Russia for help. Paris announced on Thursday it was willing to increase its contribution, and said it hoped that would prompt others to come forward.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in Dublin)

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