Russia to help EU's Chad mission despite tension over Georgia

Russia is providing four helicopters to the European Union's peacekeeping mission in Chad, despite simmering tension over the situation in Georgia, EU defence officials and diplomats confirmed Monday.

The four Russian transport helicopters are expected to begin operations in November and will provide more "flexibility" to the bloc's EUFOR mission, its operational commander, Lieutenant General Patrick Nash, said at a press conference in Brussels, dpa reported.

"We want to be active, we want to be in places where we can react, and we want to have the element of surprise: helicopters in a country the size of Chad give you that extra dimension. And the more helicopters I have, the more flexibility the force commander has," Nash said.

At the same time, Nash stressed that EUFOR was not dependent on the Russian contribution, noting that it represented less than "one third" of the mission's current helicopter capabilities.

Consisting of 3,700 soldiers, EUFOR is the EU's largest ever military mission.

Its main objectives are to protect civilians, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and help protect UN personnel, equipment and facilities.

Its one-year mandate is due to expire in March 2009, when it is to be replaced by a broader multinational force.

Nash said there was mounting evidence that EUFOR was yielding "success" in terms of greater security on the ground, but he also warned of the "many challenges" still ahead.

Talks about Russia helping meet the EU's chronic shortage of helicopters in Chad got into full swing after a March meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

But it was feared that such negotiations might be jeopardized by the August conflict between Russia and Georgia, which has seriously strained relations between Moscow and Brussels.

Solana's spokeswoman on Monday denied any delays in the negotiations, describing Russia's offer to help EUFOR in positive terms.

"It is very telling that we are able to conduct business with Russia despite political tension," Gallach said.

"It means both we (the EU) and the Russians are able to separate the two issues," she said.

While the EU has suspended talks on a new partnership agreement with Russia until Moscow implements the six-point peace plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it has not cut off ties altogether, preferring instead to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Georgia.

More than 300 EU observers were officially due to begin monitoring a ceasefire and the implementation of the peace plan on Wednesday.

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