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Friday, 14 December, 2001, 14:14 GMT
UK 'will lead Afghan force'
British troops on exercise
Army officials will discuss a peacekeeping force
The UK is likely to lead a peacekeeping force of mainly European troops in Afghanistan, says EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

But the Ministry of Defence said no decision on who would command the force had yet been taken and none was expected until next week.

The EU is now taking on is global responsibility on a more concerted basis than ever before

Peter Hain
Foreign Office Minister
Mr Solana's comments were reported as military officials from countries prepared to send troops for the peacekeeping force began two days of talks in London.

At least 10 countries including France, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Italy and Jordan, were attending the meeting in a bunker at the Ministry of Defence's crisis management centre on Friday.

The UK has already said it would be willing to lead such a force and Mr Solana's comments will fuel speculation over a British command for the troops.

Mr Solana reportedly told journalists at the EU summit in Laeken: "It will be basically be an EU force, led by one country from the EU."

Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief
Solana says the peacekeepers will be mainly European
That lead nation would "probably, very likely" be the UK, said Mr Solana.

His aides say the force would only come into being when a UN Security Council resolution was passed next week.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel hailed the agreement reached in Laeken on the peacekeeping force as a "turning point in the history of the European Union".

That announcement came despite the continuing talks in London, but UK Foreign Minister Peter Hain denied there was any confusion.

Break from the past

Instead, he welcomed the "rock solid" European support for the Afghan peacekeeping operation, suggesting this had not always been seen in the past.

Speaking from Laeken on BBC Radio 4's World At One programme, Mr Hain also rejected suggestions the force was the first operation for the planned European rapid reaction force.

"The European rapid reaction force through its security capability, which is being operationalised here this weekend, is not yet even walking, let along up and running," he said.

Tony Blair with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in London
Blair: Britain prepared "in principle" to command force in Afghanistan
The international force for Afghanistan could be deployed in the "next week or so", the minister added.

Ahead of the London talks, an MoD spokeswoman said: "They [military officials] will look at the when, where, how and what of a deployment."

She added that the force would have a "peacekeeping" role, and suggested it would also have a "robust mandate".

Other nations sending officials include the United States, she added.

Preparatory visit

A group of British army officers will leave for Afghanistan's capital city in the next few days to assess problems an international force could face.

The military experts will help the countries decide on the mission's scope and size.

The team of about 12 military officials will be led by Major-General John McColl.

The BBC's Paul Adams said delegate negotiations would continue with Afghan leaders.

The Interim defence minister Mohammed Fahim does not want a force of more than 1,000 but London believes 3-6,000 is more appropriate, he said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday that Britain was prepared "in principle" to command any force in Afghanistan.

Speaking after talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr Blair said there were an "immense amount of detail to be decided and discussions to be had" before any force was put in place.

The BBC's Paul Adams
"Governments will offer troops and assets"
See also:

08 Dec 01 | South Asia
The challenge of Afghan peacekeeping
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