EU defence reviewed as Georgia mission starts smoothly

European Union defence ministers agreed Wednesday to pool some of their military resources at a time of global economic slowdown, as the bloc's delicate monitoring mission in Georgia began without major hitches, dpa reported.

Ministers also agreed to dispatch an anti-pirate warship fleet to Somalia and effectively declared "mission accomplished" in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The two-day informal meeting was taking place in the French seaside resort of Deauville, just 20 kilometres away from the D-Day beaches where US, British and Canadian forces landed on June 6, 1944 in a drive to liberate Europe from the Nazi occupation of World War II.

Ministers had been invited by the French presidency of the EU to help build up the bloc's military capabilities and review its military operations in Bosnia and Chad.

But the gathering in Normandy also coincided with the day in which 200 EU monitors, flanked by 150 support staff, began patrolling Georgia to ensure that a ceasefire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on September 8 is enforced.

Initial reports out of the South Caucasus indicated that the observers had experienced initial difficulties while trying to enter buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia controlled by Russian forces.

But the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, told ministers in Deauville that the mission had "began very well" and was "moving forward positively".

Earlier, his spokesman Cristina Gallach had said the monitors were able to "enter the buffer zones, as foreseen."

Ministers then reviewed the EU's two most important military operations, in Chad and Bosnia.

EUFOR Chad, which with 3,700 soldiers from 23 member states is the bloc's biggest ever, is to be replaced in March by a United Nations mission consisting of 6,000 soldiers.

The ministers of France, Sweden, Poland, Ireland and the Netherlands all indicated in Deauville that they were willing to keep their troops in place with a UN hat, boosting the future's mission prospects of success.

Ministers also agreed to gradually scale down the bloc's four-year-old military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina and replace it with a civilian operation.

"Basically, most of the military operations have been completed," said the meeting's host, French Defence Minister Herve Morin.

The EU was due to take a final decision on the future of the Althea mission at a meeting scheduled for November 10, officials said.

Much of the discussions in Deauville focussed on ways to pool resources in order to boost the EU's military capabilities.

A joint French-British initiative to modernize helicopters received the backing of fellow member states, while Morin said progress had also been made on joint programmes involving minesweeping, aircraft carriers and transportation aircraft.

"Now we are getting on to tangible results," Morin said.

The minister also said that the current economic crisis made it even more urgent for member states to pool their capabilities.

"If we are going to have less, let's share our resources," Morin said, noting that member states had already agreed to contribute millions of euros into a military trust fund.

One of the meeting's most significant outcome was a decision to launch a joint maritime convoy operation in Somalia, where pirates have increased their attacks on commercial vessels.

Morin said about 10 countries had agreed to contribute to such a fleet, which would also include several maritime surveillance aircraft, and would escort European fishing, merchant and cruise vessels.

Ministers said they hoped the fleet would be able to start sailing in the Gulf of Aden as soon as November.

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