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BRUSSELS, Belgium (Reuters) -- The European Union took the first step on Monday toward sending forces to Chad and the Central African Republican to help the United Nations protect refugees trapped in the violent region bordering Darfur.
A French Legionaire sits in a mobile patrol, July 17, in Bangui, Central African Republic.
Eastern Chad and northern Central African Republic have seen a spillover from the 4-year-old conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, with cross-border raids by Sudanese militias and the influx of tens of thousands of refugees.
But refugees and villagers in the remote areas have also been victims of fighting by local rebel and government troops, as well as bandits who have turned the Chad-Sudan-CAR triangle into one of the most dangerous and desperate regions on earth.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels issued a statement saying they had asked the bloc's military staff to plan a possible operation "in support of the multidimensional U.N. presence in Eastern Chad and North-Eastern Central African Republic with a view to improving security in those areas."
Asked when EU forces could be sent, an EU official said: "at the end of October at the earliest."
Military staff will start working on a possible year-long 1,500 to 3,000-strong force, but the end result could be different, diplomats said.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno urged the EU last week to deploy highly mobile troops supported by helicopters, to help protect a zone in Chad 560 miles (900 kilometers) long by 125-250 miles (200-400 kilometers) wide and a small part of the Central African Republic.
France provides bulk
The United Nations would train and support Chadian police while the European Union would protect civilians, humanitarian workers and the U.N. mission, Guehenno said.
France, a former colonial power in Chad, is expected to provide the bulk of the EU troops. Spain is also considering a contribution, an EU official said.
EU foreign ministers said they needed a U.N. Security Council resolution, with a clearly defined exit strategy, before sending troops.
In Darfur, at least 200,000 people are estimated to have died and more than 2 million chased from their homes since fighting flared in 2003 when African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudan government in a conflict over resources.
Eastern Chad has some 230,000 Sudanese refugees and more than 170,000 of its own citizens have been displaced as a consequence of the conflict, with more than 700,000 others affected by violence, the United Nations says.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has pushed the European Union to send a military mission, said he hoped it would be sent to Chad quickly at the end of the rainy season and that it should focus on internally displaced Chadians.
"They are probably the Darfur victims who are the least taken care of, the displaced persons," he told reporters as he arrived at the EU foreign ministers' meeting.
The joint U.N.-African Union special representative for Darfur and head of the AU's Sudan mission, Rodolphe Adada, welcomed the EU move.
"Chad, with all the Sudanese refugees on the ground, with the Chadian citizens facing difficulties, deserves the full attention of the international community," he said in Brussels. E-mail to a friend
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