BRUSSELS, June 9 (Reuters) - NATO defence ministers gave the green light on Thursday to an operation to airlift extra African troops to Sudan's troubled Darfur region, the alliance's first mission on the continent.
NATO chiefs were at pains to stress there was no competition with a separate European Union mission, after NATO-member France said its offer to transport two battalions of Senegalese troops was under an EU, not a NATO, banner.
NATO's go-ahead for the operation comes a day before Darfur peace talks sponsored by the African Union resume in the Nigerian capital Abuja. Tens of thousands have been killed in the arid western region and more than 2 million forced from their homes during a rebellion now well into its third year.
"The situation in that region is appalling, and we must do all that is in our power, in coordination with other organisations starting with the EU, to assist the African Union," said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
NATO plans to be ready with air transport from July 1.
The African Union has ruled out Western troops helping in Darfur, but in April called on NATO and the EU to assist with logistical support.
The AU is seeking to triple its existing presence to 7,700 troops by late-September. Rwanda has pledged three extra battalions, Senegal two, Nigeria two and South Africa one.
The United States has said it will provide the airlift for the Rwandans, and France for the Senegalese. Other transport arrangements have yet to be finalised.
Washington had wanted NATO to coordinate the entire effort, which could later include logistical support such as officer training. But Paris insisted its role would be part of an existing EU support package.
The French move has reopened a debate about tensions between NATO and the EU as the latter seeks to develop its role as a global defence and security player.
But both organisations are keen to avoid being seen to squabble while people continue to die in Darfur. They insist they will cooperate fully and that there is no rivalry.
"I think this is a completely irrelevant discussion. One should simply agree to help. Who takes the lead in coordinating it is secondary," said German Defence Minister Peter Struck.
Struck said Germany was also ready to contribute airlift capacity and equipment but left open whether this would be as part of NATO or the EU. "It's all the same to me," he told reporters.
U.N. officials estimate about 180,000 people have died in Darfur through violence, hunger and disease since rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in February 2003.
The rebels accuse Khartoum of neglecting Darfur and of backing Arab militia to crush them.
Under a compromise agreed by NATO envoys on Tuesday, NATO will only handle airlift offers from NATO members who expressly ask it to -- at present, the United States and Canada.
NATO's coordination with the EU will go through an AU-led cell in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, staffed with a small number of EU and NATO officials.
The alliance is keen to avoid a new rift in its ranks after the row over the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- opposed by countries including France and Germany.
U.S. officials put a positive face on the Darfur arrangements. "It's a very practical solution ... we think that this will work," one said.
Besides air transport, the EU has offered a broad package of logistics support to the AU. U.S. officials also said they planned to help the AU forces better process and use intelligence.
(Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo)
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