BRUSSELS: European Union ministers discussed plans Monday to send hundreds of troops to the Central African Republic, a rare joint military mission aimed at restoring order amid fears of sectarian violence.
Arriving for an EU foreign ministers' meeting, several ministers spoke in favour of the rapid deployment of a force numbering anywhere between 400 and 1,000 to help back French and African forces already on the ground in the impoverished nation.
"We face a political and humanitarian emergency in the Central African Republic," said Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "We clearly need to do something."
As ministers discussed what would be the EU's first major ground operation in six years, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the country was in "a crisis of epic proportions" and urged the world "to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities."
Britain, like Germany, has offered logistical support for the French operation but has made repeatedly clear it would not send troops.
New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised France for dispatching 1,600 troops, saying: "We Europeans and neighbours should be grateful that France worked for avoiding worse incidents so far."
Ireland's Eamon Gilmore said his country favoured "an intervention with UN support."
A draft of the plan seen by AFP says the EU military mission would "contribute on creating a secure environment in the Bangui area", the capital where at least 1,000 people died last month alone in clashes between Muslim and Christian militia.
The EU soldiers would back up French and African troops and be a bridging force "handing over to the African Union or a UN peacekeeping force after a period of up to six months," the document said.
If the force is approved, planners hope to get troops on the ground by late February, diplomats said.
For President Francois Hollande, under pressure at home, the decision would prove welcome after he committed troops to France's former colony and then sought EU support.
"An EU deployment now (will) offer Paris both some immediate operational benefits -- freeing up French troops -- and political relief," said Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"It would at least show that the EU has not deserted France completely in Africa," Gowan said.
At a late December EU leaders summit, Hollande had pressed his peers for a gesture of solidarity even if they did not want to commit troops on the ground.
So far, only the small Baltic nation of Estonia has offered troops, saying 55 could arrive in CAR in February to back up French efforts which had helped prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe."
Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Spain are the most likely to step up next, diplomatic sources said.
Along with the French, some 4,000 African troops are in CAR under a UN mandate, trying to end violence between Christian militias and ex-rebels who installed the country's first Muslim leader in a coup in March.
Although Michel Djotodia resigned earlier this month, violence has continued, and last week the UN's humanitarian operations director warned the country risked descending into genocide.
The violence "has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere in places like Rwanda, Bosnia. The elements are there for a genocide, there is no question about that," director John Ging said.
"Atrocities are being committed on an ongoing basis, (and) fear is consuming the minds of an entire population," Ging said.
The country's transitional parliament on Monday was voting in a new interim leader, tasked with restoring peace.